Iain Farrington’s Mahler Piano Series was an Extraordinary Marathon

Ken Ward reviews Iain Farrington’s Mahler Piano Series at the 1901 Arts Club, Exton Street, Waterloo, London. 12.9 – 21.11.2018.

Iain Farrington

Decades ago it was my pleasure to attend a stunning performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony in a transcription for solo piano (by Karg-Elert), played in St. Anne and St. Agnes Church, London, by David Owen Norris. In his spoken introduction he quoted Dr Johnson, with reference to a dog walking on hind legs: ‘It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ And it was with this in mind and in this spirit of somewhat circumspect curiosity that I was drawn to attend a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony arranged for solo piano, that took place in a ‘salon’ at a one-time headmaster’s house in a back street in Waterloo, London. I didn’t know whether it would be done well, but I was warmly surprised to find it done at all.

The 1901 Arts Club provides an intimate setting in the ground floor of the house, accommodating an audience of just under 50 people. On my arrival the surprise and wonder of it all increased infinitely with the discovery that this was the first of eleven weekly concerts, each one featuring a solo piano performance focussing on one of the Mahler symphonies; and that piano arrangement, programme curation and actual performance were to be the work of just one man – Iain Farrington.

Having been able to attend eight of the eleven concerts (unfortunately unable to get to Symphonies 4 and 6, and, most regrettably, unable to hear Das Lied von der Erde) I can report to readers not merely was it done well, but the undoubted challenge of this Mahler marathon was wonderfully achieved, and the series featured some outstanding performances.

Of course, there is much that a solo piano performance cannot do, and as Mahler’s contrapuntal writing became more and more complex, culminating in the density and intensity of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, there are occasions when ten fingers and one keyboard are not enough. But there was, nevertheless, so much going on that the odd motivic fragment that didn’t register was of little significance, and the performance of that movement was one of the great triumphs of the cycle. What the piano does well is in the precision of the rhythms, and the uncompromising clash of dissonance, both of which are softened in performances on full orchestra. So the fateful halting rhythm that pervades the first movement of the Ninth from the start registered to great effect, especially in its crashing triple forte climax, and the dissonant febrile climaxes sounded even more as though crashing out of the limits of their late-Romantic context into thoroughly twentieth-century discordant disjunctions.

Right from the beginning of the First Symphony another challenge of the business of piano transcription was obvious: what to do about long sustained notes, how to overcome the percussive dynamic of the instrument – so, in this First Symphony what to do about the high and low pedal A, the ‘sound of nature’, that surrounds the fanfares, horn calls and bird song. Well, there’s nothing for it but to repeat the note over and over, thereby adding a rhythmic element that is not there in the original. Farrington’s solutions usually worked well, very well. The only time I found it less convincing was in the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony, the opening violin gesture disfigured by fortissimo repeated notes hammered out in seemingly arbitrary rhythm, and the rich ‘Abide with me’ string writing supported by frenetic arpeggios to try and keep alive the sustained passion of the original. It’s an impossible task, and being neither a composer nor a pianist (nor, indeed, a musician of any sort) I am ill-qualified to suggest that there might be some slightly less intrusive or more meaningful way of achieving this. Even so, the movement was very strong, the climax overwhelming, and the deathly quiet fade-out ending was superbly achieved.

The performance of the First Symphony was a great success, the thumping dancing scherzo and the ‘Bruder Martin’ funeral march working particularly well, and the stormy finale was much assisted in its impact by the sheer virtuosity of the playing – so much so that the breath-taking spectacle of it fully compensated for the absence of 10 horn players rising to their feet for the final peroration – this was just as exciting!

So each performance was in itself quite an event, but the context in which they were presented was, if anything, even more rewarding. After all, we’ve heard the Mahler symphonies before, even if not for solo piano, but what Farrington gave us in addition was an informed spoken introduction supported by invaluable performances of music that had fed into Mahler’s creative spirit and had special relevance to the symphony being performed. Before the First Symphony we had a selection of shorter pieces, some of them sung by Simon Wallfisch – Kol Nidrei, such as would have been intoned by a cantor at a synagogue, Klezmer melodies, a popular Moravian song, a Ländler, the original ‘Bruder Martin’ song, Mahler’s Blumine movement that was later discarded from the First Symphony, and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – so we came to the performance of the symphony better informed about its musical origins and Mahler’s musical environment than any programme note or commentary could have made us. What a privilege!

There are other things that the piano cannot do – cowbells, for example – and Farrington made no attempt to imitate them. But more problematic: it cannot be a choir, and so we were not to be blessed with the full ‘Resurrection’. Instead what we got was a concert full of interest, works that in some way covered similar ground to Mahler’s symphony, together with a solo piano version of the original first movement, Totenfeier, and some Knaben Wunderhorn songs, including ‘Urlicht’ and ‘Antonius von Padua’ that are used in the symphony, and Klopstock’s ‘Resurrection Ode’, Bruckner’s Ave Maria and other songs by Wagner, Brahms, Strauss and Elgar (The Angel’s Farewell from Gerontius) – these all very beautifully sung by Rozanna Madylus.

Throughout the series there was some exceptional singing, major highlights being Sarah Gabriel’s ‘O Mensch! Gib acht!’ as the quiet centre of a barn-storming account of the Third Symphony – she managed the transition from the opening desolate warning to the closing paean to eternal joy with heart-stopping conviction; and Simon Wallfisch’s terrifying rendition of ‘Revelge’ as a prelude to the Fifth Symphony was quite overwhelming.

If you find the Seventh Symphony to be a rather bizarre work – especially the finale – then it was even more so in its incarnation as a solo piano piece. The whole thing was somewhat relentless, the opening tenor horn solo rather stridently sounded – as were the horn calls that introduce the second movement – and by the end one felt somewhat bludgeoned. But it is an uncompromising work and this was an appropriately uncompromising performance, preceded by short pieces by Lehár, Liszt, Zemlinsky, Suk – and Edelweiss by Gustav Lange – a composer of countless salon pieces immensely popular in Vienna at the time.

The Eighth Symphony is one hundred percent choral – nothing the solo piano could do for that – but it ends with Goethe’s praise of the Eternal Feminine – which prompted Iain Farrington to assemble a revelatory programme of works by women composers, near contemporaries of Mahler, including songs by Alma Mahler, Lili Boulanger, Rebecca Clarke and Ethel Smyth, characterfully sung by Rozanna Madylus (photo below). But the major discovery and perhaps the most impressive and weighty piece was the Rhapsodie in F minor for piano by Mathilde Kralik (1857-1944) – an Austrian composer born in Linz, one of Bruckner’s pupils whose time at the Conservatory overlapped with Mahler’s. Here’s a composer worth following up!

The Ninth Symphony was preceded by Johann Strauss II waltz, Schoenberg Op.11/3 and an impassioned performance of Berg’s piano sonata. The Tenth Symphony was in Farrington’s arrangement based on the Deryck Cooke completed performing version, and it made a fitting climax to the series. I had heard Igor Levit give a slow, spare and somewhat tortured performance of Ronald Stevenson’s piano arrangement of the opening Adagio recently at the Wigmore Hall. Farrington’s approach was more lushly Romantic in its alternation between the loneliness of the opening solo and the rich F sharp major theme, filled-in with many more notes than Stevenson applies, but it worked here better for me than it had in the Adagio of the Ninth.

The two Scherzo movements were fantastic, sounding far more interesting and colourful on the piano than they often do as orchestrated in the orchestral performing versions. And all those rhythm changes in the second movement, that Farrington had counted and warned us about, registered with immaculate precision in the hands of the solo player. The fireman’s funeral bass drum strokes were well effected by a fistful of bass notes; the flute solo heartrending. Farrington said in his introductory remarks that he felt the closing pages were optimistic, they were a resolution, and at the final harrowing climax, in Farrington’s hands the music became passionately ecstatic. They had all been very fine, but I felt this performance to be the ultimate triumph of the series, a presentation of this uncompleted symphony of considerable stature.

Farrington had been on particularly good form in the first half, after short pieces by Korngold, Schoenberg Op.19, Busoni’s Berceuse (which Mahler had conducted in its orchestral version at his last concert, February 21, 1911 in New York), came an emotional performance of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ (arranged by Liszt) with its repeated falling motive used by Mahler in the Tenth and associated with Alma. Mahler’s fraught relations with his wife at this time intruded searingly into the symphony, and that context gave Farrington and violinist Fenella Humphreys occasion to perform Mahler’s love song to his wife, the Adagietto from the Fifth, arranged by Farrington for solo violin and piano. Klemperer was very critical of the Fifth, one of his complaints being that the Adagietto was too much like ‘salon music’; in this performance we had precisely that. It is hard in such an arrangement to avoid it being ‘schmalzy’ – and maybe that’s no bad thing – but Humphreys beautiful playing retained just enough sense of structure and direction to allow us to keep our handkerchiefs in our pockets.

This was a ground-breaking, mostly sold-out series of exciting, enriching, and thoroughly unusual concerts. One of Alfred Brendel’s London Beethoven Sonata cycles was marked by ‘awed editorials in The Times’; maybe Farrington’s marathon Mahler Piano series is just a bit too bizarre an endeavour for such august recognition, but that fact that is was done, and done so well, must needs be recorded!

Ken Ward 

For more about Iain Farrington click here.

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