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Views And Reviews: Mahler – Symphony No.1 (piano trtanscription)

“It’s not very often – I’d even go so far as to say it’s very rare – that a CD comes along which steps outside these normal parameters and challenges our conceptions of the very fabric of this thing we call “music”. This issue looks like one of that rare breed,’’ writes music critic Paul Serotsky.


Gustav MAHLER (1860 – 1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (piano transcription by Chitose Okashiro)
Chitose Okashiro (pf.)
Château C10001, recorded at Mechanics Hall, Worcester MA, 22-23 January 2002

Let’s start with a question: other than to maintain ourselves in a state of robust impecunity, why do we buy CDs? The answers, roughly speaking, are gratification, education, and elevation. CDs, or any other recorded music format you care to mention, provide service on tap for our physical, mental, and spiritual needs, though I hasten to add not necessarily all at once, or even in that order. It’s not very often – I’d even go so far as to say it’s very rare – that a CD comes along which steps outside these normal parameters and challenges our conceptions of the very fabric of this thing we call “music”. This issue looks like one of that rare breed.

“Oh, come on,” I can hear you saying, “What’s the Big Deal? It’s only a piano transcription!” It would be a fair comment, so let’s muse on it for a while. As long as we’ve had music, we’ve had folk who arrange – and re-arrange – music conceived in terms of one instrument or ensemble for some other instrument or ensemble. I imagine, because the truth of the matter is shrouded in the mists of time, that in the beginning it was “Hobson’s choice” – either arrange music for the instruments to hand, or don’t play it at all. By and large, up to the Nineteenth century, “expediency” was the watch-word.

Then other factors entered the fray. With the advent of the instrumental “virtuoso”, arrangements became rather handy vehicles for showing off one’s digital dexterity (I get the impression that “artistry” generally took something of a back seat). Meanwhile, at the more mundane level arrangements of “large” works, particularly for the increasingly ubiquitous piano, provided the “pre-gramophonic” public often with their only avenue for experiencing such works at all (I don’t know about you, but thinking about that gives me the colly-wobbles!). Somewhere in between came the exponents of instruments not over-endowed with available repertoire. With our current predilection for such terminology, I suppose we would call these the “neo-expedients”.

Of course, it wasn’t all “down-sizing”. Some composers, seeing the potential for the “up-sizing” of (say) solo piano works, busied themselves with orchestral arrangements. However, all arrangements have in common one thing, which is true whether at one extreme you set out to simply reflect the original as faithfully as possible, making what might be properly termed a “transcription”, or at the other you set out to completely re-think the piece from the ground up. This common factor is that if you “arrange” a piece of music it becomes, to a lesser or greater extent, a different piece of music, which must (or should) be judged on its own merits.

That sounds a bit obvious, doesn’t it? Obvious or not, arrangements are real opinion-polarisers. Some folk I know say they “don’t like” arrangements, largely because they “don’t see the point” of messing about with a “perfectly good piece of music”. Their problem, if “problem” it be, is that they can’t see the arrangement as “different” in any essential way. Others, myself included, are fascinated by arrangements, largely because they want to find out what is the point of messing about with a perfectly good piece of music. With a bit of luck, you end up with two perfectly good pieces of music for the price of one!

In which of these pigeon-holes does the work on this CD fit? Nowadays, when the CD catalogue’s cup runneth over, I think we can safely discount it being for the express purpose of accessibility. With greater confidence, I will declare that this issue has nothing to do with neo-expediency. With a recklessness bordering on abandon, I’d kick out the idea that this is the plain “transcription” it claims to be – transcriptions of even relatively “straightforward” symphonic works struggle to convince, so on that score this has no chance! That leaves us with “re-thinking from the ground up” and “virtuoso show-off piece”. If at this point I let it slip that the arrangement follows the line of the original practically bar for bar, and bearing in mind that it’s Mahler’s First Symphony we’re talking about, you’d get maybe just a sneaking suspicion that this is a “show-off”, wouldn’t you?

Ha! This is where it gets tricky! The booklet note, juxtaposing a 1½ page article “Titan at the Keyboard” by “jd hixson” (sic) with a transcript of an interview with the arranger and performer Chitose Okashiro, suggests that the purpose is none of the aforementioned. This is central to the issue, so I’d better try to give you the gist of it. Mahler’s music opened new dimensions whose “reverberations can be felt yet to this day”. Does this imply that a contemporary transcription would be nothing more than an act of virtuosic vanity? Does not the current stranglehold of the “authentic performance movement” in any event render such a whim “unthinkable”? It is suggested that Mahler’s own excursions into the arranging of other composers’ music proves that an arrangement is justified in “the context of its creative achievement”. Would I be picking nits if I observed that such a statement will always be true? As far as the piano is concerned, the arranger’s art “summons new levels of virtuosity through which to project dimensions and textures envisioned (sic!) for the orchestra”.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is just an excuse for some megalomaniac pianistic posturing in the grand old manner of Franz Liszt at his most showman-like – but hang on, there’s more. The author reflects on the culture-shock of modern recording, which has perhaps – or should I say “definitely”? – caused instrumentalists to become paranoid about technical perfection. In something of a non sequitur, he concludes that the art of transcription demands closer interaction with the original score, suggesting that in the “juncture of composer/performer/listener” (shades of Arnold’s musical philosophy!) the transcriptive art “dwells most deeply”. And so on. In other words, by peeling off some of the wrappings we might see more of what’s inside the package. Now, there’s a revelation!

Okashiro, to my intense relief, declares that “playing transcriptions does not mean to imitate the orchestra sound at all.” That would indeed be a complete waste of time, with real orchestras the world over churning out “Mahler Firsts” like Model T Fords! She thinks that pianists these days have to some extent buried their heads in the bellies of their instruments. She finds that sticking her head above the piano’s parapet and actually taking notice of the sound of the orchestra provokes ideas on how to expand her own pianistic potential, whilst the hard-bitten pianist in her can’t help winkling out elements in symphonic works that her instrument might be able to express rather more effectively. That’s an interesting idea – transcribing from orchestra to piano in order to improve the impact of the music’s message! Nevertheless, Okashiro’s “bottom line” also conforms to the “wrappings removal” model. She believes, as happens for example in the piano duet version of Le Sacre du Printemps, that stripping off the luxuriant upholstery of the orchestration exposes the harmonic nerves, the melodic guts, and the rhythmic skeleton of the music (my imagery!).

Bruno Walter’s four-hands transcription was, it seems, conceived specifically for domestic consumption in an age when performances and recordings were pretty thin on the ground In following the “accessibility” model, it tried to convey an “accurate” impression of the original score, right down to 56 bars of a tremolando “A” to simulate the mysterious string sound of the opening. His intentions were of the very best, but as far as Okashiro is concerned such mimicry is artistically arid; if she is to convey anything meaningful she perforce must follow the “re-thinking from the ground up” model.

This is perhaps just as well. The very idea – of one pair of hands getting to grips with every note of a symphony that can stretch the capabilities of a hundred – would set new standards of utter implausibility. Speaking strictly for myself, I feel that the entire undertaking sounds implausible enough as it is, a far more ambitious venture than Mussorgsky’s transcription of Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition (says he, tongue firmly in cheek!). The question is: in terms of both her arrangement and her performance, does she succeed? And, while we’re at it, do we really discover anything about the music that we didn’t know already? Alright, I know that’s two questions, but who’s counting?

Before we dive into the music, let’s look briefly at the “ancillaries”. This is the first recording released on this label, which is Chitose Okashiro’s own venture. At first glance, there seem to be no details about the recording or its participants. It’s only when you remove the CD that you see the information tucked away on the inside of the u-card, visible through the transparent CD tray. Full details are provided, right down to the name of the piano tuner, who must have been kept busy! “JD Hixson” turns out to be the recording producer who, with engineer Tom Lazarens and editor Marc Stedman, has done a cracking job of capturing the formidable sound of the Hamburg Steinway piano that is on occasions tested almost to destruction. The recording is rich, wide-ranging, quite closely-miked but with a satisfying ambience. Oh, and I couldn’t help noticing the similarity of pose between the cover picture of Okashiro, sporting a possibly inapt “halo”, and a famous photograph of Mahler himself. Go on, somebody tell me it was entirely coincidental.

I mentioned the “skeleton of the music” a few paragraphs back, and that fits the very opening like a glove. Oddly, but aptly in view of that famous comment of Beecham’s, the fourths at the start sound a bit “harpsichordish” – can anyone tell me how? With the spread of “As” supplanted by long, decaying bass notes, Mahler’s chains of descending fourths emerge from almost total darkness, like splinters of bone penetrating black velvet. Shorn of its luminous sheen, this sounds less like nature stirring in the mists of dawn, and like something much more protean – an impression that grows as the long introduction proceeds and is reinforced during the gloom of the development section. It feels like we have uncovered the moment of conception of the Third Symphony’s vision of raw life emerging from primeval ooze.

The main subject is beguilingly played, but culminates in a startlingly ferocious climax. Yet, reflecting as you listen, you realise that this ferocity is actually inherent in the original. Again, as the main subject resurges, the “out for a walk in the country” feeling is countered by emergent violence in the harmony: we may be out in the countryside, but by gum it’s a dangerous place to be! At the point where Mahler’s structure seems about to rip itself to shreds, you might reasonably expect a pianist to keep the tempo moving to prevent tension-sapping gaps appearing between the notes. Okashiro does the opposite! She sustains the crackling tension through such sheer brute force that I had to look again at the sleeve picture: surely that slip of a lass couldn’t clobber a keyboard with such colossal weight? It was almost a relief that, at the end of the explosion of fanfares, the continuity momentarily faltered! Only momentarily, mind. She blazes into the finishing straight with a bruising belligerence, an image of beastly nature on the rampage that confirms both that parallel with the Third Symphony and the impression that she is a pianist of phenomenal talent.

After all that frenetic activity, I was ready for a breather! The second movement sets off with commendably rude and robust good humour but, as the theme repeats, so it gets progressively more aggressive. However, in the main subject’s “development” the weird dissonance of Mahler’s original, which you might expect to be even more acidic on the piano, emerges simply as less diffuse, articulated with the refreshing impact of splashing spring water, albeit with a thunderous left hand contributing to the climax! The subsequent, subdued reprise of the tune is delightfully pecked out, a naive hesitancy that soon bubbles into a surge of sheer joy. Okashiro invests the central waltz with a fetching Viennese lilt, stepping and swaying languorously as if to the manner born – this is thoroughly enchanting. The close of the movement is by now almost a foregone conclusion, except that the former aggression has somehow mutated into boisterous bravado, one presumes under the influence of some schnapps sipped during the central waltz!

In the third movement the funereal round on Bruder Martin sets off conventionally, I suppose largely because there’s not much else you can do with it, but at least if afforded me the few moments of repose I’d been gasping for at the end of the first movement. Overlaying the gloom with some artfully varied attack, Okashiro makes the high-stepping counterpoint prick the mournful monotony almost like a sudden squirt of juice from a lemon, and straight in the eye, at that. This is a minor galvanic jolt that stimulates awareness of the shifting colours she is squeezing from the slowly revolving, intertwining lines of the dirge. In the contrasting, wickedly witty “knees-up” she proves the very model of bad taste, having no truck with the percussive pussy-footing that bedevils most orchestral performances. Instead, there are lashings of rumbustious rubato and hair-raising hairpins that should bring tears (of mirth!) to the eyes of even the most hardened Mahler purists. In the subsequent wind-down towards the centre of the movement she exposes some gut-squirming dissonances, although the tender “lindenbaum” episode itself brings no surprises except that, in spite of being played with tenderness and delicacy, it sounds a bit penny-plain. The reprise of the dirge, booming through the belly of the piano, is looming, ominous, purposeful, a powerful accumulation of the elements of the movement that engenders a savage jubilation in the returning “knees-up” music. This is as near as I’ve ever heard to “the animals of the forest dancing on the hunter’s grave”.

Do you find that, in the hands of a top-flight orchestra and conductor, Mahler’s stürmisch bewegt engulfs you in torrents of terrifying torment? If so, then prepare yourself for a real shock. As you’d by now expect, I can tell you that Okashiro does indeed turn the wick right up for the start of the finale. However she finds something that to the best of my knowledge no conductor has found, nor, I suspect, would dare to find: bedlam! Rarely, if ever, has that “heart” been so “sorely wounded”. Of all the passages that have given me pause for thought, this one more than any vindicates Okashiro’s claim that there are some things that the “target instrument” of an arrangement can, in some way, do “better” than the original scoring There, I’ve said it. Now I await the wrath of Stravinsky’s “inevitable German professor”! Pretty well all the notes you hear are recognisably from Mahler’s hand, and I get the feeling that Okashiro’s arrangement has somehow – and incredibly – hung on to most of them! In so doing, she has set herself a very considerable virtuosic challenge, which by the sound of it has brought her right up against the stops of her current capabilities. My guess is that the sheer block-busting effort involved, allied to the nature of the piano, is what produces this palpable sense of tempestuous chaos. What’s more, there’s no sense of Lisztian showmanship here, just red-raw, blood-curdling musicianship.

In the aftermath, Okashiro’s fingers capture a real feeling of straining in the upward-striving lines, and her view of the second subject is anything but serene: “wracked with anguish” would be nearer the mark. It’s not so much a contrast with as a continuation of the first subject, lending a new edge of meaning to the rumbling return of the first movement material that bridges to the subsequent climactic outburst. Her delicacy of touch in the moment of fanfare-laden quiet is as exquisite as her attack in the build-up to the “false dawn” is ferocious. Likewise, the parade of past themes passes in a panoply of filigree, and the coda storms the barn in no uncertain manner. It is only in the tearaway closing bars that you get a feeling that she’s running out of steam. Do you know something? I think that this might well be entirely deliberate.

This is not pretty music, but it is pretty impressive, not least in the sheer audacity of the undertaking, which sounds like something that should not even be attempted by any pianist who can’t eat Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth for breakfast (along with a minimum of three Shredded Wheats). Chitose Okashiro is a formidable pianist: I have this nagging suspicion that her hobbies must be something like miniature flower arrangement and smashing piles of roof tiles with her bare hands.

I’ll admit that I had fully expected this CD to enshrine a fiasco, thinking something on the lines of, “Mahler’s First on a piano? Don’t be so ridiculous!” To my utter astonishment, I was completely bowled over by it. Now, I am fully aware that my judgement may have been clouded. At my time of life “astonishment” is an increasingly rare experience, so I’m more than content to be astonished. Nevertheless I have tried to make allowances for this happy state of affairs. There are imperfections, which, let’s face it, is hardly surprising! Also, just very occasionally I was tempted to think that there are maybe one or two places where the “drum-roll” left hand and sustaining pedal are laid on a bit thickly. Yet, all these pale into insignificance when set against the revelatory nature of the “transcription” and the authority which Okashiro brings to her performance. Sure, I can imagine it being done better, but only by stretching my imagination a little – about as far as Okashiro has stretched her technique!

As Mr. Spock might have said, “This is Mahler’s First, Jim, but not Mahler’s First as we know it.” The lady is right, it does indeed make you think again, and think carefully about what the music is “about”. Moreover, the revelations are not limited to the substance of the arrangement, but often emerge from the style of the interpretation. I’m thinking particularly about her highly elastic phrasing, a required characteristic of Mahler’s music that is so rarely given enough air to breathe or (worse) inappropriately applied by many conductors. Chitose Okashiro’s arrangement and her breathtaking performance make you realise, in contradistinction to his long-held reputation as a bit of – or even a lot of – a “wild child”, just how refined a composer was Gustav Mahler. It seems to me that both my questions have been answered in the affirmative.

This is an astonishingly audacious enterprise! Like it or not, Chitose Okashiro’s carefully considered arrangement and her formidable musicianship rip open and compel re-appraisal of this all-too-familiar masterpiece.


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