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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 (arr. piano four hands by Otto Singer) [69:28]
Piano Duo Trenkner/Speidel
rec. 9 2018, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster
Reviewed in SACD stereo
MDG 930 2070-6 SACD [69:28]

Piano Duo Trenckner/Speidel has tackled numerous large-scale works for MDG in the past, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Smetana’s Ma Vlast and Mahler’s arrangement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is another huge challenge. Otto Singer was a composer and a friend of Mahler who completed this version of the symphony for publication in August 1904, two months before the orchestral premiere. The authenticity of the arrangement as approved by the composer is further heightened by the use of a 1901 Steinway Model D Concert Grand, which lends a slightly brittle edge to a sound which is full of sonic richness and dynamic contrast, and is by no means over-stuffed in terms of texture.

Singer tackled the piano reduction by keeping the musical essence while sensibly not attempting to imitate the massed sound of an orchestra. This certainly has a clarifying effect on the music, which is played very well indeed on this recording. There are inevitably many moments where the lack of instrumental timbre from an orchestra creates a feeling of hard work rather than of drama or ecstasy, in the stormy second movement for instance, and in the extended development sections of the third. There are parts of the work which are so unidiomatic for anything other than a full orchestra that we’re always going to encounter passages that make you want to look at your watch rather than being carried along in undulating waves of passion and “whirling dances”, but with the legitimacy of the recording beyond argument it will be up to listeners to decide whether this is a useful addition to their Mahler experience. Pianistic virtuosity is certainly a consideration, and fans of Liszt might find much to enjoy here. I found myself appreciating the superhuman effort on show rather than feeling I would want to return to listen more.

The famous Adagietto has to be considered one of the more effective movements in this recording. Sustain through use of the pedal creates that atmosphere of suspended time and depth of feeling that contrasts very well with the restlessness elsewhere. True quiet isn’t really in the nature of this antique instrument, but we get as close as possible here.

There are various chamber or reduced-forces recordings of this work, and David Briggs has even made an organ recording for the Priory label. This is a mixed and expanding bag of more or less convincing musical manufacture, and while I applaud the achievement this quatre-mains recording will, as far as I’m concerned, join their number. Back in the wee small years of the 20th century there was little or nothing in the way of phonograph recording, and musicians keen to hear rarely performed orchestral works played through them in piano versions such as these. That was then, and this is now, when we are as awash with recordings of Mahler symphonies as we are with just about any other kind of music you can name. Despite admirable qualities and a fine SACD recording set in the familiar Abtei Marienmünster acoustic, this is one of those discs which is more of academic interest than for inspired enjoyment.

Dominy Clements

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