INKPOT — MAHLER Symphony No.1 – Piano Solo Transcription by Chitose Okashiro, based on a 4 hands version by Bruno Walter — CHATEAU

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No.1 in D Major
piano solo transcription by Chitose Okashiro,
based on 4 hands version by Bruno Walter
Chitose Okashiro, piano

CHATEAU C10001

Total Time [58:27] Full-Price

by Derek Lim

Good Mahler performances, not to mention recordings, are so readily available today that it is easy to forget that twenty years after the composer passed away in 1911, recordings were still a rarity and performances were few and far between. It doesn’t need too much of a stretch of the imagination to see how the piano transcription brought large scale works such as Mahler’s to the music-loving public.

Mahler’s first symphony was completed in the version we know it today in 1896. Bruno Walter (then Bruno Walter Schlesinger; he dropped the Jewish last name on Mahler’s advice) was introduced to Mahler in 1894 and admired his music very much, enough to make transcriptions of several of his symphonies for 4 hands. What we hear on this disc is based on his transcription of the first symphony and was made by the performer, Ms Chitose Okashiro. Despite several caveats, it is excellent and worth a listen.

Mahler (pictured right) was first and foremost an innovator in orchestration and any attempt to reduce his orchestra comes to grief sooner or later. In the first movement, one is faced immediately with the problem of the sustained harmonic on all strings – how does one get around that? Bruno Walter (so say the notes by Okashiro) chose to have the players play the “A” repeatedly for 56 measures, something quite laughable when you think about it, but Okashiro is probably right when she says that it’s quite a challenge to create a mysterious sound that way. You’ll have to buy the disc to find out her elegant way out of that.

Okashiro otherwise does a great job in colouring her playing to imitate the various instruments, though again the dynamics pose problems that even she is unable to solve – the coda is a case in point. She proves herself to be a sensitive Mahlerian, though in parts I felt she could have filled in some of the orchestral textures, which at times sound quite threadbare.

The second movement fares the best, relatively straightforwardly played, but with a gently applied rubato that makes the music breathe nicely. It seems to me the final chordal passages in this and the previous movement could have been handled with a greater sense of finality but these do not hamper the music.

Moving on to the third movement, I realised that I had been instinctively filling in the sonorities of the instruments in the music and the double-bass solo, the muted string playing later and the percussion were all things I found that I missed particularly. On the other hand, Okashiro’s playing lives very much in the spirit of the movement and her sense of irony, though rather poker-faced, is well and healthy. Her characterization of the piece is as good as any, and the core of the movement, which draws its material from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum), is as touching as any, and I found myself adjusting to the point that I was moved.

The final movement is the ultimate test of a pianist’s ability to transcribe, and I’m happy to say that it was only in the very last passages that I found it wanting. A grand piano with any number of hands cannot hope to compete with, or even match the force of the post-Romantic orchestra, but it wasn’t simply more volume per se that I would have liked. The problem to me is that in trying to accommodate all the notes in the left hand (the “accompaniment”) a sudden broadening of tempi had to be taken, translating into a palpable lack of tension. In my mind, if a piano transcription is to be wholly successful, it has to be able to at least keep the inherent tensions  in the orchestral version.  Unfortunately, notes may have to be dropped to keep the overall effect of the last pages of the symphony in order to do this. Such is the dilemma of the piano reduction. (above left: Chitose Okashiro)

It seems a strange thing, not to mention a little damning, to say that one appreciates Mahler’s talent as an orchestra so much more when you listen to this piano transcription, yet I mean it with no small degree of respect for Okashiro. The fact that she managed to keep my attention for the whole of the recording is testimony to that – hers is a transcript that not only manages to put in all the notes but also live up to the spirit of the composer.

From a purely pianistic point of view, she’s simply a stunner, especially when you consider that in some points a multitude of instruments play at once and that she manfully absorbs all those textures into her two hands and swallows all the difficulties en route. It’s really quite a feat.

This transcription should be considered a valiant effort rather than a true reflection of what Mahler’s Symphony might be able to sound like on what is after all called a “reduction”, with good reason. But a valiant effort it is, and a superhuman one, really, when you think of it — having to create the effect of the orchestra with just ten fingers. Chateau Records and Ms Okashiro are to be congratulated in coming up with such an unusual program. This recording will stimulate and infuriate Mahler lovers, but isn’t that the case with the best?

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