Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vienna Singverein
Latonia Moore (soprano)
Nadja Michael (mezzo soprano)
Gilbert Kaplan (conductor)
DG 474 380-2
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Gilbert Kaplan is most definitely not your run-of-the-mill orchestral conductor. It would be an understatement to say that his repertoire is restricted. In fact, it is so compact that it puts Kaplan in a unique category, a functioning orchestral conductor with little more than just one musical arrow in his quiver. True. it’s a huge arrow, nothing less than Mahler’s massive Symphony No 2, known as The Resurrection.
For the record, it should be noted that some years ago, Kaplan made a one-off recording of another work, also by Mahler – the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony for the Pickwick label. And on one other occasion, as the curtain-raiser to yet another performance of Mahler’s Second, Kaplan was required to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in The Star Spangled Banner (the national anthem of the USA). These two diversions aside, it is Mahler’s Second that has been, and continues to be, Kaplan’s unremitting preoccupation.
What are Kaplan’s credentials? At which conservatoriums of music did he study to prepare for this challenge? And with which masters? And how many years were devoted to bringing Kaplan to his unique level of symphonic understanding?
The answers – which came in a late-night telephone conversation with Gilbert Kaplan speaking from his New York home – are astounding.
Like many American children, little Gilbert had piano lessons between the ages of 7 and 10 years. And then nothing – nothing at all – for thirty years during which Kaplan pursued a publishing career that netted him a fortune before he embarked on the musical pilgrimage that has made him famous.
His achievement is staggering, the musical equivalent of, say, spending three years of childhood reading nursery rhymes and then, 30 years later, walking on stage to give a world-class characterisation of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Richard III.
In 1965, when Kaplan was 25 years old and working as a stockbroker, he heard Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony for the first time; Leopold Stokowski conducted.
It was an epiphanic experience that was to alter the course of his life – but not for another 17 years.
In the interim, Kaplan went into publishing , and when he eventually sold his Institutional Investor magazine (which had a circulation of 140,000 in 140 countries and received 45 awards for distinguished journalism), it made Kaplan an immensely wealthy man. It gave him the freedom to focus on what has become his life’s work to which he brings an almost visionary intensity.
When, in 1982, Kaplan turned his attention to Mahler’s symphony, “I worked 4 to 5 hours a day, sometimes longer, seven days a week for seven months with a young conductor – Charles Bornstein”.
Kaplan says the beginning was very hard indeed for him – and after working through the first 14 pages of the score, he wondered whether he had taken on an insuperable challenge. He considered throwing in the towel – until he realised, as he explained over the phone, that every journey starts with a single step and that each page studied was a page nearer his goal.
Heartened by these reflections, Kaplan persevered . Then he hired the American Symphony Orchestra so that he could conduct Mahler’s Second at Carnegie Hall. The ASO agreed to this on condition that no critics were invited to the performance. But in the audience there was a reviewer who wrote the concert up for New York’s Village Voice – and the rest is unique music history.
Kaplan’s 1987 recording of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra sold 175,000 copies, the biggest numbers ever for a Mahler CD.
Kaplan conducts this vast opus from memory, using, as his musical Bible, Mahler’s original manuscript with its teeming alterations. This DG CD is the premiere recording of the new official score.
Whatever one may think of Kaplan’s modest repertoire list , he is impressively prepared in music terms to make a recording of Mahler’s Second, a daunting hurdle for anyone, even the most seasoned of orchestral directors. It’s hardly a pushover. In fact, its vast and treacherous musical landscape has been the graveyard of more than a few conducting reputations. And Kaplan? How does he fare?
After listening to his direction of the work not once but several times, I would have to say that he comes across as a master guide, taking us over Mahler’s vast music la ndscape, along the way pointing out every copse and cranny in so persuasive a way that territory that we had previously thought we were familiar with is, through the medium of Kaplan’s guidance, magically transformed so that we get a new, utterly engrossing appreciation of this colossal symphony.
There is an irrefutable logic to his direction of the work, a frankly thrilling response to its myriad subtleties of tempo, timbre and tone. And his ability to inform even the meanest succession of notes with deep meaning while not for a moment losing sight of the epic overall design of the whole gives to it a sense of completeness that makes this recording the standard by which all other recorded performances of the work must now be measured.
That this has been brought about by a musician with almost negligible initial training makes it a near-miraculous achievement.
The Vienna Philharmonic is, of course, more than a world-beating orchestra. It is famous for its uneasy relationship with Mahler and the resentment it exhibited towards the man they had themselves elected as their conductor. Here, the VPO is, to say the least, on its very best behaviour, as are vocal soloists Latonia Moore and Nadja Michael and the Wiener Singverein.
It would have been a formidable prospect for any conductor, even the most experienced and professional, to direct the Resurrection Symphony in the august, history-steeped environment of the Vienna Musiekverein. But after listening to Kaplan’s recording made in this symphonic holy of holies and Mahler’s erstwhile stamping ground, it has to be said that he is more than up to its daunting chal lenges.
Kaplan has already directed the Second with more than 50 orchestras around the world including Melbourne in 1994 and in Beijing, China the following year, the first time it had ever been performed there.
In 2004, he will preside over three performances of the Second in Washington and, later in the year, going on to conduct the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.
In passing: for all his phenomenal achievements, Gilbert Kaplan is a profoundly humble man. He considers himself an amateur in the original sense of loving the work he does and doing it purely for
the pleasure he derives from it. He declines fees for his conducting. And if he is paid, he donates the fee back to the orchestra. He will, though, accept travel and accommodation costs.
This recording of the Second, runs for 85 minutes. Each one of them is magical.
© November 2003