Early piano rolls offer an intriguing but elusive glimpse into the sound-world of early-20th-century composers (see Clair de lune).
It’s always frustrating that we don’t have recordings of Mahler himself conducting his symphonies. But stopping off in Leipzig in 1905 on his way home to Vienna after a performance of the 2nd symphony in Berlin, he recorded a session on piano roll, reproduced with the new Steinway Welte-Mignon system. It includes
- Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
- Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (from 3.05)
- the finale of the 4th symphony (from 6.06)
- the 1st movement of the 5th symphony (from 14.14).
Of course, being familiar with Mahler’s opulent orchestrations, one has to adjust to the limited instrumental timbre; but it’s wonderful to hear his music closer to the source of his inspiration, free of the crowd-control necessitated by conducting a large orchestra. He plays the 4th with a flexible, improvisatory feel that is hard to achieve with clarinet and voice accompanied by orchestra. And he relishes the extreme, manic contrasts of the 5th symphony.
See also the remarkably effective chamber arrangements of Mini-Mahler.
My fantasy wish-list for filmed performances includes Mahler conducting his 2nd symphony, Bach directing the first performance of the Matthew Passion, and the rituals of Li Manshan’s illustrious Daoist forebears at the Zhouguantun temple fair in 1942.
With thanks, as ever, to Augusta!