album review | classical music

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

Arranged for piano four-hands by Bruno Walter

(Piano Duo Trenkner-Speidel) (MDG)

Walter’s arrangements of Mahler’s first two symphonies date from a time when such adaptations were essential for the dissemination of orchestral works. Some of these arrangements were merely an aid to learning a new piece, while others were intended for public performance. Walter’s, with their careful attention to accents, articulation, and principal themes, seem to fall into the latter camp. But in an age where both works have been recorded to death, these should be superfluous, right?

Wrong. These arrangements — brilliantly played by Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel on a 1901 Steinway — are fascinating in their own right, a kind of X-ray into the interior of the music. Shorn of its orchestral effects, the music sounds almost plain, though still powerful, and reveals just how straightforward Mahler’s harmonic structures often were. Often the piano version sounds quite unlike the original, as in the opening of the First Symphony; elsewhere it comes amazingly close to the orchestra version, as in the coda to that movement or the scherzo of the second movement.

Of course, much of Mahler’s orchestral wizardry is simply beyond the reach of even the most ingenious arranger and the best-played instrument, as in the two vocal movements of the Second Symphony. Inevitably, the grand choral finale seems like weak tea on a single piano. Yet almost everywhere there is much to be captivated by in Mahler’s writing, Walter’s rendering, and the pianists’ superb performances.