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Gustav Mahler

Mahler Pioneers: Hermann Scherchen conducts the Adagio of the 10th symphony

1948. Royal Festival Hall, London
This recording of the Adagio of Mahler's 10th Symphony was recorded in 1948 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Hermann Shcerchen
Composer Gustav Mahler
Conductor Hermann Scherchen
Ensemble BBC Symphony Orchestra
Genre Symphonic concert

Mahler Pioneers

“Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand… concluded the brave series of Mahler Symphonies. It would be interesting to know roughly how many converts were made.” In the Penguin Music Magazine edition of October 1948, Denis Stevens was looking back on music that had been broadcast by the BBC through the year. For the first time in England, a festival of all Mahler’s completed numbered symphonies had been mounted, and it had been organised by the BBC, which had the resources to underwrite substantial financial losses that had been expected even when the majority of the performances were to take place in the studio. The “brave” festival had indeed been a challenge at a time when Gustav Mahler was still widely considered, nearly four decades after his death, an unwieldy and ‘way-out’ composer with only a meagre audience of devoted enthusiasts. And the majority of musicologists, critics, and reviewers were judgemental. After one of the events, on 11 February 1948, The Times music critic wrote of the performance of the Eighth Symphony conducted by Sir Adrian Boult: “Here and there snatches of the true Mahler, the Mahler who pursued his vision with the heart of a child and not the mental outlook of a rather bumptious major prophet, emerge, only however to be shouted down by the thousand…. No, if Mahler is to give us a vision of heaven let it be through No.4, not No.8”. And even 10 years later, on 17 October 1958, in an article in the same newspaper entitled “Sunset Decadent: Clues to the Psychology of Mahler”, the writer, reviewing Donald Mitchell’s new publication Gustav Mahler: The Early Years, declared: “Gustav Mahler had a stormy life and his music still divides critical opinion in something the same way as does Berlioz’s, and for much Mahler Pioneers 3 4 the same reason, that there is something immoderate about it, and therefore neither quite healthy nor quite artistic – since limitations are of the essence of art”. This is the kind of barrier the relatively few performers and promoters championing Mahler’s music were up against, just as their small minorities of predecessors had been ever since the lifetime of Mahler himself: the aforementioned Fourth Symphony was one of the very few of the composer’s works to have attained a degree of popularity. Thus when, less than two years after the 1958 article had appeared, the Mahler Centenary celebrations organised especially by the BBC and in the United States by Leonard Bernstein and Dimitri Mitropoulos suddenly and unexpectedly triggered a dramatic change of public and critical perception, the definition “Mahler Revival” was not accurate. That was no revival – it was an epiphany which uncannily mirrored the composer’s prophecy that about 50 years after his time his music would be recognised. Famously the great conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer vitally advocated Mahler’s music from the times that they had both known the composer personally, defiantly taking on the sceptical landscape before the change of outlook in the 1960s vindicated their courage, and their achievements remain rightly acclaimed to this day. Even so, there were gaps in the Mahler repertoire that they conducted and also recorded. Less was the case with the conductor of the earliest performance in this two-CD set, Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966), who was at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony on 21 November 1948. In the 1950s Scherchen recorded all the numbered symphonies other than the Fourth, and he often programmed the composer’s works in concert when they were rarely heard: a true Mahler pioneer. He could be as eccentrically wayward in his interpretations as he could in his daily life (the conductor Sir Edward Downes, who studied with him, told me that his first session was arranged as a discussion at six o’clock in the morning in Scherchen’s house, 5 where the “stark naked” teacher opened the door to his pupil), but he was a major influence in the early appreciation of Mahler’s and other neglected composers’ creations. At the time that Scherchen conducted the performance of the Adagio in 1948, this and the third movement of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony were all that could occasionally be heard of the work, as at least the composer had drafted the Adagio in orchestral and short score, and the third movement in short score though with less than a fifth of it also in draft orchestration. The composer Ernst Krenek had been approached by Mahler’s widow to prepare a fair copy of Mahler’s drafts, and this, dating from 1924, was the main version in use, although the conductor Franz Schalk, and also the composer and conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky, are reputed to have inserted some unauthorised changes. Another version was prepared by the celebrated conductor Willem Mengelberg, also in 1924, but the world had to wait until 1964 before the Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke presented his performing version of all five movements of the Symphony, the last music that Mahler ever drafted, following eventual permission to do so from the erstwhile persistently resistant widow of the composer, Alma. At the other end of Mahler’s compositional spectrum, a performance of his first completed work dating from 1880 opens this survey of artists who were pioneer advocates of the composer’s music, and the recording here preserves its premiere in the United Kingdom. On 13 May 1956, Das klagende Lied, in Mahler’s two-movement revised format that at that time was basically the only version available to perform before the manuscript of his original three movement construction came to light in 1969, was conducted by Walter Goehr at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Goldsmiths’ Choral Union and an eyebrowraising trio of soloists: soprano Joan Sutherland, tenor Peter Pears, and contralto Norma Procter. Dame Joan very rarely performed Mahler’s music, and this recording of the event is most probably the only known document of her singing Mahler, while in contrast Norma Procter, 6 along with Sir Peter Pears and also Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, was one of the singers strongly advocating Mahler in the pre “revival” times of the 1950s (Peter Pears had given Benjamin Britten a score of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as a present as early as 1938). Then there was the conductor, composer, and versatile arranger Walter Goehr (1903-60). Here was a pioneer champion not only of Mahler’s compositions but also of the most avant-garde music of his time – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Britten, Tippett, and Messiaen among others. And let us not forget that until the 1960s Schoenberg and Messiaen were generally sequestered names for the public in Britain, to where Goehr had relocated from Berlin in 1933 (a year after the birth of his son Alexander, the distinguished composer). Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was performed for the first time in Britain under Goehr in 1950 (for the BBC), and it is ironic that 10 years later, just as the new wave of Mahler’s popularity was burgeoning, he should die prematurely at the age of 57. It was in that year of 1960, on 9 February, that as part of the BBC’s Mahler Centenary celebrations he conducted the performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the soprano Teresa Stitch-Randall that concludes this set (coincidentally, Mahler paired conducting the second performance of Das klagende Lied with his Fourth Symphony at a concert in Vienna in 1902). The UK premiere of Das klagende Lied (literally translated as The Song of Lamentation) that Walter Goehr conducted omitted Mahler’s original first movement that he had entitled ‘Waldmärchen’ (Forest Legend) because, as referenced above, in 1956 the main published version of the work was Mahler’s final revision (after several efforts) of his original composition, and for that he had deleted the ‘Waldmärchen’ movement. The history of the performing editions of Das klagende Lied and the eventual publication of the complete original three-movement version many years later is complex. Suffice it to say here that the ‘Waldmärchen’ movement had served as a background narrative to the cantata’s main story 7 that is depicted in the other two movements, ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel), and ‘Hochzeitsstück‘ (Wedding Piece). Mahler himself wrote the sung text that he based on German folklore writings by the Grimm Brothers and/or possibly also Ludwig Bechstein: whatever the exact sources, he fashioned the story as his own. For clarity, this now is the complete tale including the missing first movement: ‘Waldmärchen’ relates how two young brother knights separately search a forest for a red flower that will win the finder the hand of a beautiful queen. The chivalrous brother discovers it, but he is murdered by his rapacious older brother who steals it from him. In ‘Der Spielmann’ a minstrel stumbles across some bones in the same forest and carves one of them into a flute. As he plays it, the voice of the dead brother sings to him through the flute, telling him how and why he died. The minstrel is determined to find the queen and tell her what has happened. ‘Hochzeitsstück’ is the scene of the celebration of the queen’s marriage to her successful suitor. While her king is pale and quiet, the minstrel appears and plays his flute, whereupon the dead brother’s voice sings out his story. The infuriated murderer snatches the flute to play his own tune on it – only to find that the flute has its own will as his dead brother’s voice confronts and reproaches him. The queen is horrified – she faints, then tries to run away with her king and guests, but the castle collapses and sinks into the ground. Mahler originally specified a massive orchestra for Das klagende Lied (including six harps), and although he reduced the instrumentation for his revisions, the forces are still very large. They include an off-stage orchestra of brass, woodwind, timpani and percussion that bring to life the wedding festivities inside the castle in ‘Hochzeitsstück’. Considering the paucity of Mahler performances at the time of the UK premiere that Walter Goehr conducted, one can only surmise what portion of the audience may have been aware of the prescience that parts of this work foretell of some of the composer’s later creations. Apart from a few songs, they were 8 only to follow quite some time after Mahler had originally completed this his first score in 1880, and maybe a reason that eight years elapsed before his First Symphony was written was the first pang of a kind of rejection he was going to suffer a great deal through his life. His submission of ‘Waldmärchen’ was turned down by the Beethoven Prize judges who included Johannes Brahms, and after he subsequently sent the movement to Franz Liszt in the hope of a performance at the Tonkünstlerversammlung des ADM, he had to endure Liszt’s reply “Your composition Waldmärchen which you kindly sent to me contains some valuable features. The poem, however, does not seem to be of the kind which would guarantee a success for the composition”.1 Mahler himself later stated that this failure with Das klagende Lied (which he was not to premiere until 1901) was a major reason why he took up the profession of conducting for his income. No introduction about Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, written in 1899 and 1900 though incorporating a song from 1892, is needed here, as it is so well known. As aforementioned, it was one of the very few of his works to gain quite some popularity before the so-called Mahler Revival of the 1960s catapulted the posthumous composer to belated world fame and success on a scale that even his prophesies could not have forecast. Neither could the artists speaking in the two uniquely valuable interviews that complete this set have forecast it – but they both lived long enough to witness it, and as they both experienced Gustav Mahler themselves in person, an especially fateful atmosphere pervades their memories recorded in one instance after over half a century later and in the other instance 60 years on. On 16 August 1962, the former timpanist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Alfred Friese related to Jerry and Jole Bruck his recollections of playing for Mahler in the orchestra in 1909 and 1910. Not in 1911, though, for reasons he explained, as can be heard. His speech wasn’t 1. The Mahler Foundation 9 always clear to understand, and so a transcript is provided in this booklet, although it cannot properly preserve some of the immensely amusing incidents he related amidst his invaluably informative commentary. Then on 8 April 1970 Jerry Bruck and Gerald Fox interviewed the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski who vividly recalled his memories of Mahler rehearsing and conducting a work that he himself, Stokowski, was famously to make history with only a few years after its composition. In 1916 as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s adventurous young Music Director he pioneered the United States premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, a gigantic undertaking with no compromises in the numbers of prescribed performers, which he achieved in the face of all manner of initial opposition from his Board of Directors. Stokowski was 88-years-old when he gave this interview, but apart from just one place where he would appear to be contradicting something he had earlier spoken about, his alertness and clarity of recall sound like that of a much younger man. Indeed, he comes across Alfred Friese 10 very much in the way that he did when I played for him in two London orchestras just a couple or so years later. He was well known for playing wicked pranks and occasionally in doing so being less than totally truthful, but in this interview he is deeply serious and, to this writer, powerfully convincing. We must acknowledge with great gratitude and appreciation the gracious generosity of Jerry Bruck for permitting us to issue the interviews with Alfred Friese and Leopold Stokowski. Mr Bruck, Proprietor of Posthorn Recordings and himself a pioneer in ambient surround sound recording and reproduction, not only recorded but is also the owner of the interviews, which he made as part of his lifelong devotion to the cause of Mahler scholarship. He, the conductor Harold Byrns and the musicologist Jack Diether were between them crucial in persuading Alma, Mahler’s widow, to rescind the enduring ban that she had imposed on anyone attempting to perform a completion of the composer’s draft sketches for his Tenth Symphony. And he was also directly responsible for enabling the ‘Waldmärchen’ movement of Das klagende Lied to be published as part of the complete original version of the cantata. We also must acknowledge the kind permission of Music Preserved in agreeing the release of all three Mahler performances on this set, as they have been exclusively preserved in their archive. Originally in conditions varying from adequate to seriously faulty, they have been extraordinarily successfully restored for this issue by the painstaking re-mastering of the distinguished audio restoration engineer Paul Baily.

Jon Tolansky © 2023

This recording is from The Harewood Collection.

Music Preserved’s recording of  this work has been issued by SOMM Recordings on their disc of Mahler Pioneers (ARIADNE 5022-2).  More details at

We are very grateful to SOMM Recordings and to Jon Tolansky for allowing us to use their material.

  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Hermann Scherchen

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