Schubert-Mahler – String Quartet "Death and the Maiden" / Tsenov Chamber Ensemble

Franz Schubert – String Quartet in D minor (D. 810) “Death and the Maiden” (arr. Gustav Mahler)

Guerguan Tsenov, music director
Lincoln Center, New York, January 15, 2016

On November 19, 1894, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) conducted his own arrangement of the slow movement of Schubert’s Quartet in D minor (“Death and the Maiden”) in a subscription concert of the Hamburg Opera. He was immediately criticized for depriving Schubert’s “divine” music of its natural intimacy. But despite this harsh criticism (during the last 100 years “despite” has gradually become a synonym of “Gustav Mahler”), four years later, when he had moved from Hamburg to Vienna, he completed and performed an arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, perhaps the most famous of his arrangements and the one which certainly aroused in conservative Vienna the greatest excitement and hostility. Today, we can easily see much clearer and with much less prejudice the very powerful and very convincing motives and principles involved in Mahler’s once very unorthodox and very controversial endeavor: First, from the vantage point of a conductor, Mahler was obviously eager to bring these admired chamber works into the sphere of the concert hall, into a radically different acoustic, and to wider audiences. Second, we have to recognize Mahler’s own voracious interpretative and re-creative gift, which was so essential a part of his genius. His arrangements enabled him to interpret – i.e. conduct – what otherwise would have been inaccessible to him as a performer. And third, and perhaps more importantly, Mahler clearly believed that both his arrangements of Schubert and Beethoven offered an unfulfilled sonority that could only be achieved by arranging the works for string orchestra. In other words, there was an additional dimension awaiting realization through the deployment of extra resources.

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