Why I wonder do some musicians feel it is necessary to impose their own identity on the work of the great masters? Last week the Croatian born pianist and composer Dejan Lazić presented to the Proms audience the results of his six years of work translating the violin concerto by Brahms into a piano concerto.
In June, another movement of Schubert’s so-called ‘Unfinished’ symphony was performed for the first time in Cambridge, completed by the composer and Cambridge professor of composition Robin Holloway. It seems difficult to justify these, and many similar, performances when the orchestras, soloists and scholars might more productively be devoting time, energy and careful rehearsal to something worthwhile – like many complete yet neglected works that we rarely hear.
I recently reviewed CDs of Sir Donald Tovey’s orchestral music, and I still await similar opportunities to hear symphonies by Cyril Scott, Walford Davies, Granville Bantock, Frederick Cowan and many others (even in this country we have a worthy symphonic tradition), and yet so much exertion goes into presumptuous attempts to make incomplete pieces performable. It is an act that might just be forgiven if carried out by a composer, for there is much to learn from attempting such work. Tovey himself spent valuable time completing Bach’s Art of Fugue, a brilliant scholarly achievement, and many after Süssmayr have attempted to give us access to a complete Mozart Requiem, not least my distinguished OCA tutor colleague Duncan Druce, a composer whose own completion was heard at a Prom concert in 1991.
Yet none can know what was really intended, and in the case of those works incomplete by reason of the composer’s death, it seems presumptuous in the extreme, for all another can do is draw upon what they know of the composer’s past, not the future.
Attempts to justify completing Mahler’s massive 10th would seem an insult to his amazingly progressive imagination, for no one could possibly step into that extraordinary mindset, though Alma Mahler finally gave Deryck Cooke’s version her blessing in 1963, the year before she died, no doubt still without real knowledge of the inner mind of its revolutionary creator. Many years before that, she had approached composers with the task, but they wouldn’t do it, no doubt knowing how impossible it is to get into a creative mind. Ernst Křenek tried in the 1920s, Alban Berg was afraid of it, and later Schoenberg, Britten and Shostakovich all refused to touch it. It was the scholars who dared: Clinton Carpenter, Joseph Wheeler, Remo Mazzetti, conductors Rudolf Barshai and recently the Israeli Yel Gamzou. At least Cooke called his a ‘performing version’. True we would not have Borodin’s Prince Igor or Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina had it not been for the diligent devotion of composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.
But why presume to remake substantial parts of non-existent pieces like Beethoven, Schubert or Elgar symphonies? Surely it would be a better use of creative talent and performing skill to devote the time, energy and considerable cost to presenting something new rather than playing around with a few old and doubtful sketches by a long past master! They aren’t the real thing, and couldn’t ever be.