Rather living up to its name, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony has enjoyed several lives beyond the grave. Three incarnations for piano were prepared during the composer’s lifetime – Hermann Behn’s for piano duet (1895), which Mahler declared was excellent, Bruno Walter’s for four hands (1899), and Heinrich von Bocklet’s all-eclipsing arrangement for eight hands, two pianos (1899, published by Universal Edition in 1914).
Bocklet seems to have been smitten by the bigger is better ethos – he also arranged Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel and Also sprach Zarathustra for the same combination. However, Mahler himself appears to have been less than impressed. He heard a performance of Bocklet’s arrangement of Symphony No. 2 on 12 November 1899, and declared: “The tempi were all wrong, and the expression and phrasing were often so incorrect that everything dissolved into chaos”.
If the eight hands got a bit carried away on that occasion, one imagines Mahler might have been better disposed towards the efforts of Stephen Emmerson and three young fellow Queensland pianists – Brieley Cutting, Angela Turner and Stewart Kelly. They take on the Bocklet arrangement with a rather different purpose. Rather than blustery attempts to replicate the scale of a full orchestra (which in the case of Symphony No. 2, whose score calls for “the largest possible contingent of strings” is a big ask), they approach it as four chamber musicians might – rather like a string quartet with keyboards.
At first it sounds expansive in tempo and possibly too restrained. It’s a ‘Resurrection’ sans might and power, but in its place there is rare poetry, intimacy and introspection. In Emmerson and Co’s hands it comes across as a different work, one that escapes into the recesses of Mahler’s imaginary idylls and explores his ‘honeyed nostalgia’ as Richard Osborne nicely puts it.
In the Allegro maestoso, the initial menacing scales start slow and speed up, and the growling bass motives are played perhaps too ‘nicely’, losing their inherent menace. However, a lyrical dimension opens out that does ample justice to this movement’s spacious landscape. The Ländler second movement feels rather languid, losing some of its concise Viennese charm; but for the rest one can admire the judgment of these four pianists and feel that they understand the enormity of Mahler’s vision. They play the circulating watery figurations of the Scherzo with tidy precision, Urlicht (from the Wunderhorn songs) with sensitive beauty, and the finale with satisfying weight if not quite the power one might like.