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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Gustav MAHLER (1864-1911)
Versuch für Orchester (1906) World Premier Recording
Phantasie auf Englischen Themen (1892) World Premier Recording
Illustrated lecture by Dr. Willem Van Helder on Mahlerís lost works.
Beauchamp Philharmonia
Conducted by Joan Collier
(Recorded in the Victoria Hall, Goole on 20th January 2002)
Quintessential Records QCD-648764-2 [56.45]


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We owe the discovery of these hitherto unknown works of Mahler to the assiduous detective work of the Dutch Mahler scholar Dr. Willem Van Helder and the preparation of the scores to the indefatigable British Mahlerites Peter and Matthew Marks. In his excellent notes Van Helder recalls last yearís Utrecht Symposium when the first ever performance of the "Versuch für Orchester" drew a standing ovation from the audience for what was a performance by a largely student orchestra. As a member of that audience myself I can only say I too joined in enthusiastically though I did have doubts as to the wisdom of presenting what was such a slight work on its own in a concert. Mahler is known for the considerable length of his symphonic works so it must be said that a fully scored orchestral work by him lasting just thirty-two seconds might seem like short change at the best of times. With no other items on the programme it seemed brief in the extreme. However, such is the power and reach of this tiny work that its place in the canon seems secure. A work of such extreme concision places Mahler even more firmly into the trend leading towards the brevity of Webern and so represents a major discovery in Mahlerian scholarship; though I would suggest that it would be better if it was followed by another work of Mahler in the concert hall in the future. At Utrecht we were hardly settled into our seats before we were out of them again. Fortunately the symposium management had laid on a considerable amount of refreshment and entertainment and I was taken especially with the lavish selection of gateaux and tortes that had been flown in from Vienna especially for the occasion. The Sacher Torte was particularly memorable with the most divine chocolate that I have tasted in many a year - truly Mahlerian in its richness and variety. As too was the marzipan topping to a particularly delicious creation by one Viennaís most celebrated Pastry Chefs that had been called "Wunderhorn Cake" by him for the occasion. Though I must say that I thought the stylised caricature portrait of Mahler that was etched in the inch-thick, diamond-hard crystal icing in cochineal was a trifle near the knuckle.

It now seems certain that the "Versuch für Orchester" was written in 1904, from the same period as the Sixth Symphony, and that it probably records in music a domestic incident at Mahlerís summer residence in Maiernigg. Though precisely what that domestic incident was we may never know for sure. However, the middle bars contain a very precise figure on horns that the Marks brothers suggest does alliterate to the word "Gesundheit" and the opening crescendo on timps followed by a crash on two sets of cymbals and bass drum even suggests the sound of a large sneeze. Itís certainly one theory but not one that I share. The fourteen-second closing section, effectively the scherzo, is scored for a series of low and fruity fff blows on trombones and tubas and we can only speculate as to their significance. In all, this is a major discovery in Mahlerian research and I was pleased to see that all proceeds from this recording will go to the Rhinitis Research Fund based in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Joan Collierís performance on this recording takes a full second longer than the one heard in Utrecht. I should know, like many Mahlerites that night I had my stopwatch running. On that occasion the British conductor Jamie Hubble failed to really plumb the depths. Joan Collier does much better and clearly the extra second helps a great deal. However, I can see Mahlerites discussing for a long time in the future the precise clock timing this work demands. One particular comment I heard after the first performance struck me with particular force. "Lenny would have made the minute," someone said, though it was a noted British critic not known for his appreciation of Bernsteinís talents.

The unfinished "Phantasie auf englischen Themen" dates from Mahlerís one and only visit to London in 1892 when he appeared at Covent Garden to conduct Wagnerís Ring. It is unlikely that he would have heard these tunes anywhere else. For example, a song about a bunch of coconuts must have been quite a novelty to the young man from Vienna. If this is the case he perhaps heard these familiar tunes during a sojourn into the East End of London. The Third Variation, for example, with the only known use by Mahler of the spoons, even suggests to me the presence of Pearly Kings and Queens. Analysis of stains on the manuscript by scientists at Vienna University have identified the DNA of the common eel and a chemical constituent of the gelatinous substance used to prepare them prior to cooking in certain cockney recipes of the time. So just as the raspberry juice stains on a Mozart opera MSS suggests Mozart wrote the work in a Summer house, the corresponding stains on this score of Mahlerís might point to composition in a jellied eel shop. The hammer blow in this section of course looks forward to the Sixth Symphony. It is sobering to ponder the possibility that the hammer blows later in the Sixth Symphony might, on this evidence, in fact relate back to the shattering of a coconut shell rather than to the negation of a cruel fate as we always thought. As ever, Mahler is full of surprises. Perhaps the most memorable variation is the fourth where Mahler sets "Klopfen Sie sie in der alten Kentstraße" to his familiar Ländler rhythm and very effective it is too. Incidentally the original manuscript score contains at this point a pencilled-in comment not in Mahlerís hand. Graphologists consulted by Dr. Van Helder are of the opinion that the writing is that of Bruno Walter and that means the score must have been shown to him years later suggesting it stayed dear to Mahler. As to the words themselves, the Marks brothers at least are convinced these translate as: "Oh hell, Gustav, not another bloody ländler!" The fifth theme clearly recalls the First Symphonyís third movement. Indeed, apart from a different tune, this is to all intents and purposes the same scoring as that movement from the wiry opening double bass solo to the café band interjections. In the symphony Mahler used a tune we know as "Frére Jacques" but which Mahler himself knew as "Brüder Martin". Here it is not "Brüder Martin" but "Mütter Braun" that is featured with the café band interruptions on the words "Unter der Tabelle gehen Sie, ee-ay ee-ay ee-ay-ee" staying in the mind for many days. A pity the work was never finished as I am sure the finale would have pulled together the various themes of the work in a particularly Mahlerian way. Perhaps at some point there will be a performing version of the finale based on what Mahler may have done with it. My friends Peter and Matthew spring to mind, so one day we may actually see the concert billing: "Mahlerís Phantasie auf englischen Themen completed by The Marks Brothers" on our programmes. We may never know why Mahler didnít finish the fantasia. Perhaps his return home cured him of his interest in English melodies. I attended the first performance of this work in Manchester late last year, again under Joan Collier, and I knew then that, as with the "Versuch für Orchester" I was in the presence of genuine Mahler. There were no cakes that night, though, which was a pity.

This release is also a good shop window for the talents of emerging conductor Joan Collier. A note by her in the liner booklet dedicates this recording to her late husband who died so tragically in Utrecht last year choking to death on a piece of cake icing. As a recent newspaper headline announced following her London debut: "Joan Collier, Joan Collier, the widow to watch!" The Beauchamp Philharmonia really gets deep into the crevices of the music and deserve great success.

The CD is completed by a fine illustrated lecture from Dr. Van Helder recorded at the Utrecht Symposium. In it he talks about and plays fragments from other works by Mahler that he has discovered over the years. These include a proposed setting of poems by William Blake, an opera on the Dreyfus case, and the only known suggestion that Mahler considered writing a concerto. If only he had told us what the featured instrument was going to be. I cannot share Van Helderís suggestion that this would have been the Glass Harmonica.

Not to be missed.

Tony Duggan

See also Tony Duggan's Mahler pages


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