Mahler as arranged or as an arranger turns up on a pair of enterprising Naxos CDs. Aside from the opening of Schumann’s Spring Symphony (altered pitch) most of Mahler’s Schumann symphony emendations (initially in Schumann Symphonies No. 1 & 2 ‘re-orchestrated’ by Gustav Mahler, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Naxos 8.574429, c£8.00) are relatively subtle, or as my dear late mother might have put it, ‘the hard of hearing would have appreciated noticing them’. But I can’t blame folk for using the popular Mahler label as a sales tool, Schumann nowadays not being considered the sexiest of symphonists, although I’d take issue with my colleague Norman Lebrecht (in The Critic, 9th October 2022) who claims that ‘the main impediment is the lack of a big tune that folks could hum on their way home …’. Er, really? Like the second movement of The Rhenish, or of the Second (music that’s as sensual as Wagner) or the Fourth’s Scherzo? Sorry Norman, I’m not with you there. The truth is that Mahler’s minor changes (forget ‘re-orchestrations’), or ‘models of tasteful modification’ for the larger orchestras of today, as they’ve been called (by annotator Rodney Smith), are nothing in comparison with the major and often revealing differences between performances of ‘Schumann symphonies pure and simple’ under Barenboim, Bernstein, Haitink, Holliger, Kubelík, Masur, Muti, Sawallisch and many others. The principal virtue of Alsop’s disc is in the transparency and musical good sense of her own performances. Those who ‘redeem’ orchestral Schumann for recorded performance tend to do so from the notes as originally written, maybe with a little help from a good technical team. It’s that simple and Alsop obliges.
With Mahler himself however there are one or two lingering issues. Mahler’s uncompleted Tenth Symphony (Hong Kong Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, Naxos 8.574372, c£8.00) has for many always proved a bone of contention. Years ago I spoke with Anthony Payne about his own pleasing if controversial ‘performing version’ of Elgar’s Third Symphony. Inevitably the issue of Mahler Ten cropped up and I was relieved to note Payne’s doubts even in the face of heroic work undertaken by Deryck Cooke and others, which I – and he – held in high regard. I quote him here, in sense rather than verbatim: ‘I always get the feeling that if Mahler had lived, he would have added to the work – things would have happened that in the event remained unrealised’, meaning elements of rage and drama, much as you hear in the Ninth Symphony. Imagine my excitement at discovering the new Naxos recording quoted above of the Adagio and Purgatorio movements which Alma Mahler sent to the composer Ernst Krenek to prepare a fair copy from, and which was subsequently forwarded to Mahler’s great friend and greatest interpreter Willem Mengelberg who made his own version, adding some very ‘late-Mahlerian’ contrapuntal detail, a roaring tam-tam and in the midst of the Adagio’s terrifying scream, thudding bass drum strokes. One shivers to think what Mengelberg might have achieved had he received the whole score, maybe approaching the high drama of Payne’s Mahlerian vision.
If you’re into Mahler you simply have to hear this CD; it’ll likely change your view of the piece, or at least your view of what it might have become had Mahler himself lived to complete it. There’s a coupling too, Shostakovich’s Tenth, a very good performance but with the Mahler still ringing in your ears, somewhat surplus to requirements.