Thursday 23 August 2018

A Mahler Piano Series

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler
Pianist, composer and arranger Iain Farrington has created an eleven-concert series, A Mahler Piano Series, that explores the European musical melting pot of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, focusing on the music of Mahler with many of the symphonies being performed in piano transcriptions alongside the music that influenced Mahler. In this essay written for Planet Hugill, Iain Farrington explores the concert series further.

Iain Farrington
Iain Farrington
Composers are often defined by their musical identity and how it reflects the society in which they live. The music of Gustav Mahler is a remarkable product of the times and locations in which he lived, drawing together a wide range of different musical styles that he heard throughout his life. This stylistic diversity is a key aspect of Mahler's work, as he forged his identity through these disparate musical elements. While this eclectic musical mix is much written about in Mahler scholarship, it is rarely explored in concert programmes.

The series I'm undertaking this Autumn juxtaposes many of these different musical influences with Mahler's own work. It includes a large variety of songs and piano music from Mahler's contemporaries and major influences, along with a rich selection of other genres. These then feed into the large-scale symphonies, many of which are played in my own two hand piano arrangements. Mahler often played his latest works on the piano to friends and colleagues, and his early training as a pianist left him with a good virtuoso technique. By performing the music in this way, it enabled the first listeners to hear the melodies and harmonies unadorned. The idiomatic style, the wide-ranging content, the emotional depth, the unique structure: all these pieces of the musical jigsaw were presented by Mahler himself on the piano to those trusted friends. A black-and-white image of the Symphony was presented, a kind of musical X-ray.

Mahler also composed at the piano, each one of his composing 'huts' having an instrument at his disposal to bring these fiery elements together. The sketches are often on two/three staves of music, and can be read directly on the piano. We are fortunate to have piano rolls of Mahler playing parts of his own work, and these provided a vital stimulus for this series. Although they are probably only loosely accurate representations of his piano playing, the piano rolls demonstrate Mahler's 'orchestral' piano technique, full in texture and tone, carrying the sweep and drama of the music without getting bogged down by the intricate details of the score. Mahler also accompanied singers at the piano in recitals of his songs, and published piano scores of many of them alongside the orchestral versions.

Performing Mahler on the piano is therefore not such an unusual idea, as he did exactly that throughout his whole life. It requires not just a literal transcription of the notes onto two staves, but a transformation into pianistic texture of the full sonic landscape. The main bulk of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material remains intact, but the emotional sweep and scale of the sound is of equal importance, as it is in Mahler's own piano performance. Rich pianistic textures are often sought, to maintain the sustain and richness of the sound, although there is no unnecessary virtuosity or fireworks. Hearing the symphonies and songs in this way allows us to take in the content as 'pure' music. By performing them in a salon venue, the concert is more direct and personal, as well as being free from the usual expectations concerning standard concert repertoire. Perhaps experiencing a sole performer tackling such complex music adds an element of heroic struggle, as well as a sense of intimacy and loneliness. Certainly the physical sensation of playing this music is an intensely rewarding (and exhausting) one for the pianist.

Each symphony (including Das Lied von der Erde) is placed in the context of many of its influencing elements, with the exception of the choral 2nd and 8th, which are used as a template to explore related ideas. These different musical styles cover Mahler's life from a simple childhood in rural Bohemia until his death as a world-famous conductor/composer. The following is a summary of the wide range of music featured in the series, that all contribute to Mahler's musical identity: folksongs, Jewish cantor music, klezmer, country dances, waltzes, military marches, operetta, popular and salon music, classical composers including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, a concert of works by female composers, as well as the muisc of friends and contemporaries such as Busoni and Schoenberg. Some of Mahler's lesser-known pieces are featured, such as Blumine, Totenfeier and numerous songs, to give a rounded and balanced picture of the composer.

This broad and diverse selection of music provides a backdrop of sounds that were familiar to Mahler's audiences, and gives context to his own work. These listeners were shocked that Mahler could use so many disparate 'popular' elements in his music, and critics accused him of lacking a compositional identity by borrowing from so many other styles. Of course, with Mahler's output now familiar to modern concert-goers, his identity is indeed made up of these disparate elements, but moulded into something personal, modern, direct and universal. By putting all of this music side by side, Mahler can be appreciated even more as a brilliant and original composer. Perhaps we can hear the music in a different way, find new meanings in the notes, discover unexpected depths. One thing is certain: Mahler's identity is that of a powerful and individual voice, with the capacity to change our lives more than an century after his death.

A Mahler Piano Series with Iain Farrington and friends is at the 1901 Arts Club, Waterloo, London, weekly from Wednesday 12 September to 21 November. Concerts at 7.30pm, £15 (£10 concessions) including a complimentary drink. Full details from the 1901 Arts Club website.
Iain Farrington

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Grand Manner - Aprile Millo's London debut recital at the Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Songs of Farewell - BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo at the Proms (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!  - Opera review
  • Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera  - interview
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month