Saturday, 29 May 2010
Mahler plays Mahler piano
Who's that pianist? Gustav Mahler himself playing Mahler in piano transcription. This is the first movement of Symphony no 5. It's a historic moment though it might not have seemed so at the time. A German company called Welte Mignon invented a new process for recording sound, that was much better anything else at the time. To publicise their new system, they got famous composers to play their own music. So on 9th November 1905, Mahler sits down and does his thing.
He recorded four pieces, Mahler 5/1, Mahler 4/4, and two songs, Ging heut morgen übers Feld and the early Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald. Before radio and recordings, many people did music at home, so piano transcriptions of everything were standard practice. Do it Yourself Wagner, for example. People bought scores like they buy MP3s today . That's how composers and publishers made money, and how music spread outside the concert hall or opera stage. If you play your own, you learn the tunes. Transcriptions were important teaching tools, too, because musicians had to analyze what make a piece work in its essentials.
I've picked M5/1 because it shows how Mahler focuses on a clean, direct line, darkening the tone to suggest the larger forces in an orchestra. Oddly enough, it makes me think of some of his earliest songs, like Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz. Here he is coming out of the Wunderhorn phase, but are Wunderhorn settings so far from his mind?
His tempi are fast, but that's because he's trying to squeeze each piece into the short time frame the technology was limited to. It's completely wrong to assume that these are any indication of how he wanted the symphonies to sound. What he was doing here was experimenting with technology, not setting down a sacred template for performance practice. He's very free because it's a one-off experiment.
What's also interesting is what it tells us about Mahler. No Luddite, no technophobe. Here he is playing "new" music, written only 3 years before, for people with the very latest new invention. He was the man who followed up on Freud, took an interest in leftish politics, read about Eastern philosophy, and saw Schoenberg's potential. Not a backward thinker, but someone who cared about the past because it informed the future.
Welte Mignon folded for many reasons, and recording went back to more primitive methods, which is why recordings of the 1920's and 30's often sound horrible. But Welte Mignon captured a moment, like a snapshot in time. Obviously, copyright has long expired, which is why these pieces keep popping up on CD.