Musical Marathon: Intrepid Piano Duo Distills Mahler Six

Gustav Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony in 1903 and 1904. He led the premiere in 1906.
By Wynne Delacoma

CHICAGO – The Chicago Symphony Orchestra may no longer dominate prime time at the Ravinia Festival, its summer home for more than 60 years. Pop acts, more likely to draw large, high-paying crowds, now occupy Ravinia’s pavilion stage most weekend nights.

Inna Faliks (Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

But in recent years, the festival on Chicago’s North Shore has become something of a nirvana for chamber music lovers. An impressive roster of singers from Susan Graham to Matthias Goerne has given recitals in Ravinia’s beautifully restored, rustic 900-seat Martin Theatre. The smaller, modern Bennett Gordon Hall has a rich schedule of concerts with every seat priced at $10. Offerings this season include young musicians in Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute and established artists like pianist Jonathan Biss and the Lincoln Trio.

On Aug. 31, Inna Faliks, the charismatic Ukraine-born pianist, made her highly anticipated Ravinia debut, performing as a piano duo with Daniel Schlosberg on the festival’s $10 Bennett Gordon series. The program was the polar opposite of standard repertoire, a transcription of –  get ready for it –  Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 for piano, four hands, by Alexander Zemlinsky. Clocking in at approximately 90 minutes, it is a musical marathon, attempting to condense Mahler’s vast, emotionally wrenching universe for oversized orchestra, including cowbells, into 88 piano keys and two pianists’ dexterous fingers. After a labored opening movement, Faliks and Schlosberg hit their stride, managing to capture both Mahler’s intricate harmonic and melodic detail and his profound, heaven-storming drama as distilled by Zemlinsky.

Piano transcriptions were the YouTube of their day, a way for 19thand early 20th-century music lovers to become familiar with the symphonies and operas everyone was talking about but few could experience firsthand without tickets to such cultural hotspots as Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus or Vienna’s Musikverein. Some transcriptions were designed to be played simply for enjoyment at home. But those by composers like Liszt, who transcribed all the Beethoven symphonies as well as Wagner operas, were far beyond the abilities of amateurs. Once recordings appeared, transcriptions were deemed no longer necessary.

Zemlinsky was a gifted composer in his own right. His transcription of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, made with the composer’s blessing in 1905, deftly distills its stunningly inventive, often dissonant, harmonies and underlying architecture. But why –  in 2017, with dozens of superbly engineered recordings of the symphony by the world’s great orchestras readily available, not to mention performances for free on the Internet – would Faliks and Schlosberg want to play Zemlinsky’s transcription? Judging from Thursday’s performance, one reason might be the sheer delight of riding such a powerful musical beast.

Daniel Schlosberg (Photo by Kirk Richard Smith)

Faliks and Schlosberg switched positions at the piano after the second movement, Faliks, on the lower keyboard for the first two movements, taking the upper register for the final two. Mahler changed his mind about the order of the second and third movements while rehearsing for the premiere in 1906, deciding that the serenely lyrical Andante moderato movement should come before the energetic Scherzo. Music scholars have argued the question ever since, but Faliks and Schlosberg honored Mahler’s wishes, playing the Andante as the second movement and the Scherzo at the third.

In the first movement, the musical beast appeared to have the upper hand. The playing sounded tense and rushed, as if the pianists were struggling to simply keep up with the nonstop tumble of densely packed chords and swirling melodic clusters. The Austrian emperor’s alleged comment to Mozart, “monstrous many notes,” came to mind. Faulting a piano for not sounding like a symphony orchestra, especially the highly colored, expanded ensemble Mahler called for, is foolish. But despite the duo’s best efforts, Mahler’s entrancing vision of both the profound joy and deep tragedy of human existence failed to emerge from the sometimes muddy, generally gray torrent of notes.

From the Andante onward, however, Faliks and Schlosberg found their way, conveying Mahler’s all-encompassing spirit with stunning technical clarity and gorgeously shaded emotional depth. After the opening movement’s tension and sense of sonic overload, the Andante was a welcome respite, unfolding with the sweet melancholy of a late summer’s day. The pianists seemed to be genuinely listening to each other rather than racing madly to keep each other in sight. The soothing main melody rose and fell, driven by Falik’s languorous middle register with quiet treble murmurs from Schlosberg on the keyboard. The musical atmosphere was relaxed and sensuous, the audience as well as the performers savoring Mahler’s shifts between gently playful teasing and full-throated ardor.

Alexander Zemlinsky

With Faliks in the lead, the prickly Scherzo and huge, dramatic Finale fully reflected Mahler’s mighty voice. Faliks is a poetic pianist, unafraid to linger over a short pause or craft a melodic fragment to explode and fade with blinding speed. But especially in the transcription’s fast-paced final movements she never lost the singing-through line so crucial to navigating Mahler’s often chaotic universe. The Scherzo’s staccato, martial rhythms could be crisply stern but also piquant and witty. Its lyrical moments glowed, thanks to Falik’s pliant, flexible melody lines. Colored by Schlosberg’s gravely serious lower voice, the Finale’s somber chorale and stunning hammer blows worked their magic. We experienced Mahler’s brief glimpses of celestial hope in Falik’s luminous whirlwinds. But in the final bars, the duo’s fragmented phrases and exhausted pauses made it clear that despair had vanquished hope.

Maybe 21st-century Mahler lovers don’t need Zemlinsky’s piano transcriptions of Mahler’s symphonies anymore. I did miss hearing the Sixth Symphony’s distant cowbells and noble massed brass. But as Ravinia’s large, enthusiastic audience amply demonstrated, the chance to hear Mahler distilled for piano can be something special.

Wynne Delacoma is a free lance arts writer and lecturer and former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.