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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Mahler comes Second at last

By Norman Lebrecht / December 19, 2002

I am sitting in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna, listening to the first performance of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. No, not a timetraveller's fantasy or a seasonal hallucination, but a contemporary encounter with literal fidelity.

Mahler's Second Symphony, known as the Resurrection, was first heard in Berlin in 1895; its Vienna premiere took place in this hallowed hall in November 1907, an act of farewell by the alienated composer. Since both concerts were conducted by Mahler himself, one might reasonably assume that they sounded as he intended.

Not so. Mahler was an obsessive perfectionist who revised his work after several performances before consigning it to print. Unhappily, his editors and interpreters were less attentive. Two years of note-picking research in Vienna have exposed almost 400 errors and oversights in the published score.

The performance I am hearing is the first "correct" account of the symphony, incorporating markings and revisions collated from Mahler's hand-written manuscript, his conducting scores and from sets of proofs that he corrected for publication. In all, 14 autograph sources were consulted. This is as accurate as music can ever be. The performance is being recorded by Deutsche Grammophon for release next year and a new score is being printed by Universal Edition to supersede all parts presently in use.

What difference this will make to the hand-holding pair of newlyweds in row 27, or even to professional musicians, is a matter of individual perception that will need to be addressed before you turn the page. But first you'd have to wonder what would make anyone want to challenge a century's worth of acclaimed performances and declare them fundamentally unsound. It's the culmination of a near-quixotic mission, the determination of one stubborn man to master a musical masterpiece.

The story begins 20 years ago last September when, before a New York audience studded with finance ministers and banking chiefs from an International Monetary Fund summit-a rank amateur stood up in the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall and proceeded to conduct one of the most daunting works in the concert repertoire, involving an army of around 200 performers and guerrilla bands of offstage instruments.

Gilbert E Kaplan is a classic American self-starter. Aged 27, he founded a magazine, Institutional Investor, which became essential reading for anyone handling a billion or so in public and corporate funds. He became a confidant of presidents and potentates; even Fidel Castro sought his ear. Mercifully for his sanity, in the year he made his first million, Kaplan encountered the music that would dominate his life. Hearing Leopold Stokowski conduct a rehearsal of Mahler's Second with the American Symphony Orchestra, he felt a twitch of destiny. A growing sense of symbiosis with the symphony led him to the conviction that he had to conduct it.

Kaplan, at this time, could barely decipher Für Elise on his children's piano. Over a period of 18 months he took private lessons from a young conductor and attended every rehearsal and performance of the symphony in both hemispheres.

His debut at Avery Fisher Hall was a triumph of mind over musical matter, and something more. "I had the feeling," he told me soon after, "that people in the audience were urging me to fulfil my dream because each of them had a secret ambition... They were up with me that night, playing baseball for the Yankees, writing the book they never wrote, getting the girl they never got."

This, however, was just the beginning. Kaplan was soon consulted by famous conductors on his handling of the offstage bands, using closed-circuit television. He managed to buy Mahler's manuscript of the symphony when the Dutch foundation that owned it needed to mend a hole in the roof, and proceeded to publish a magnificent facsimile.

He has written learned papers on interpretative minutiae and has conducted more than 50 orchestras. He gave the symphony its Chinese premiere in Beijing and in 1996 opened the Salzburg Festival, and continues to conduct sparingly. His 1988 recording, with the LSO, is by a huge margin the bestselling Mahler symphony in history with 175,000 copies sold, outstripping Bernstein, Solti and the rest by a factor of three-to-one.

If Don Quixote had wound up King of Spain, he could hardly have bettered Kaplan's conquest. Yet, with each performance, the self-made conductor grew more dissatisfied.

"Every time I go into rehearsal, someone questions the printed score," he sighs. "'How come this note doesn't match that one?'

"So I got Dr Renate Stark-Voit, a Viennese expert, to check the symphony against two of Mahler's original scores. She came up with more than 300 questions in the third movement alone."

The pair set to work creating a new edition, using every score that Mahler touched. When they asked the Vienna Philharmonic for access to Mahler's conducting score, its cochairman and first clarinet, Peter Schmidl, got wind of what was up.

"My father played in this orchestra," he told Kaplan, '"and my grandfather played under Mahler. We want to make the first recording of the new score."

More than any other orchestra, the VPO restricts itself to a handful of top conductors. For an outsider like Kaplan, now 61, to conduct it is a breach of tradition.

But tradition, as Mahler said, is usually an excuse for sloppy practice.

What Kaplan represents is a return to Mahlerian rigour. "He's not a professional conductor," one player was heard to say, "but he knows what he wants in this score and we can follow him."

Many of the discrepancies between the old edition and the new are inaudible matters of inflection. But some leap out at the informed ear - a C-sharp in place of a C-natural, a sudden new burst of horns. Kaplan furnished all of the players with a written explanation of a notorious wrong F in the percussion parts.

"It's not wrong," he concludes. "In all 14 of Mahler's scores he wants it to sound that way."

IN the final stages of recording, Stark-Voit stalked the stage like an avenging angel, warning players not to backslide into habit. Kaplan faced the delicate task of persuading the professorial concertmaster to change the time-honoured way he played his solo. And those of us in the wings were left speculating just how many other symphonies would benefit from such refreshment.

There are romantic pitfalls in such fantasies. Only last month, newspapers the world over reported the discovery in Israel of what was claimed by "experts" to be Mahler's conducting score of his First Symphony. The International Mahler Society has written a letter to the New York Times declaring that the handwriting is not Mahler's, after all.

Such excitements have become a feature of a musical culture that ignores contemporaneity and lives entirely in the past.

What Kaplan's adventure has proved is that our perception of the past is often false. We cannot recreate Mahler's world, or live in it; all we can do is present its text faithfully.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001