Gather before dusk at the gates of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and await the Stygian ferryman—in this case, a driver in a trolley bus—to take you deep into the heart of this sprawling, lushly wooded burial ground. Disembark and make your way into Green-Wood’s yawning “catacombs,” a subterranean passage of burial vaults built in the 1850s. Here the classical music impresario Andrew Ousley organizes semi-regular concerts, part of a series he calls the “Death of Classical.”
In an atmosphere illuminated by candlelight and the occasional flash of lightning, with the distant sound of crickets emanating from the world of the living above, I sat down last Thursday to listen to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in a rarely heard reduction for piano four-hands.
If the setting is a gimmick, it is an appealing one, and it fits the Ninth to a T. This is Mahler’s famous “death” symphony, the last one he finished before his demise from a heart condition in 1911. Yet it is not a macabre piece taken as a whole. Most critics have understood the symphony as exploring themes of confrontation, struggle, and, finally, reconciliation with the approach of eternity, and in its stuttering pace in the first and last movements they have heard the heartbeat of a man on his deathbed.
Mahler saved some of his most serene composing, surpassing even the famously lush Adagietto of his Symphony No. 5, for those two movements; he also deployed some of his most jagged harmonies and prickly chords in the middle two movements, particularly the third, the fugal Rondo-Burleske.
The pianists navigating these choppy watters were Jed Distler on secondo (left position) and Jerome Kuderna on primo (right), the latter substituting for Stewart Goodyear, who was sick. Playing such an arrangement is intensely physical work and demands a level of sustained concentration exceeding that required by solo piano recitals: whereas a soloist is afforded the luxury of varying tempo and employing rubato at will, here each collaborator must hew closely to the tempo of the other. Consequently, there were rough edges—occasional slips out of sync and an overall pace that fell a tad on the rushed side—but this was to be expected given the parameters of the piece and the fact that Kuderna had gamely volunteered with only a few days’ notice.
Mahler’s greatest skill—more than his ear for melodic composition and harmonic structure—was his mastery of orchestration, featuring rich coloration and daring instrumentation. There is understandably much to be missed in a piano reduction of his symphony. One of the best and most striking experiments with orchestration in Mahler’s work—indeed in the whole classical repertoire—comes at the very end of this symphony, when each instrument of the orchestra gradually dies away, giving way to first violins playing pianissimo, then pianississimo, then gently yielding to the void, marked ersterbend—“dying” on the score. Played Thursday evening on a single piano, which cannot match the dynamic range of an entire orchestra, the breathtaking sweep from the piece’s harrowing climax down into its hushed denouement could only be faintly approximated.
But it would be unfair to judge a performance of a transcription only in the light of its source material. Listening to this piano reduction, we are actually very close to hearing Mahler’s symphony as he himself would have only heard it: he never lived to hear its harps shiver or its violins fade away, as he died before the piece could premiere. What was very much appreciated Thursday evening was the sense of discovery that both pianists felt as they wrestled with this work and plumbed its lower depths—it was just a bit like watching a great symphony come into being before us. Both pianists could be seen exchanging knowing glances, using free hands to point out difficult passages in the score, and taking turns in solo passages to help beat out time and direct the other pianist’s playing. At one point in the first movement, Distler sounded a particularly thunderous chord in the left hand, and Kuderna wrenched his eyes away from the score long enough to give his partner a playfully startled look.
Lacking orchestral coloration, the reduction allows the listener to appreciate on a finer level the remarkably progressive harmonic structure of the piece. Here the dissonant harmonies and jagged chromaticism that gave birth to the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and his compatriots are laid bare. Though the neophyte would likely depart a touch bewildered, for the lover of Mahler and the initiate to his mysteries, this chance to encounter the composer’s most ethereal symphony up close was a rare treat.
Lest we forget, Mahler’s greatest ambassador, Leonard Bernstein, rests in a grave just a few hundred yards away from the catacombs, the score for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 across his chest. He would have been quick to remind us that the Symphony No. 9 is the work of a genuine New Yorker, composed during Mahler’s 1908–11 stint as the director of the Metropolitan Opera and then of the New York Philharmonic. Surely some of Green-Wood cemetery’s dead rode the subway with Mahler as he shuttled regularly on the IRT to play at Carnegie Hall or at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and surely many of them sat in those halls, mesmerized by his music. It’s fitting to bring the music home to them here.