GUSTAV MAHLER’S “Resurrection” Symphony, officially his Symphony No. 2 in C minor, traces a spiritual arc from tempestuous mourning though bittersweet reminiscence and churning despair to a place of transcendent bliss. The single step with which the cosmic journey begins is a four-beat bar for the violins and violas, quivering in octaves on the note G.
Most conductors attack with a crash. Gilbert E. Kaplan wants to hear a whoosh, like a huge wave. If a concertmaster demurs because the strings have always played the bar the other way, Mr. Kaplan offers a simple proposition: “Well, why don’t we do it the way Mahler wrote it?” The dynamic marking is fortissimo (very loud), tapering to a tremulous piano (soft).
Mahler annotated his scores in compulsive detail, often tinkering with them for years. He placed no accent at the start of the opening note, Mr. Kaplan observes, so why play one?
“When people don’t do things that are in the score or vice versa,” Mr. Kaplan said recently, “I always wonder: Is it because they don’t like the way it is written, which would indicate that they are taking license, as they’re entitled to do? Or don’t they know?”
On Monday evening Mr. Kaplan, 67, makes his New York Philharmonic debut in a concert celebrating the centennial of the American premiere of the Mahler Second, joining the orchestra’s line of distinguished interpreters from Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Bruno Walter, Artur Rodzinski, Otto Klemperer and Willem Mengelberg back to Mahler himself. Before the performance he will also host a free multimedia presentation, “Mahler’s New York Adventure.”
One afternoon in November Mr. Kaplan was at home on upper Fifth Avenue discussing his favorite subject. Having made his fortune at an early age as the founder of the magazine Institutional Investor, he first stepped out as a maestro, in 1982, with a performance he expected to be his last. The 90-minute “Resurrection” Symphony had been a fixation with him since he first encountered it in 1965, as a young economist working at the American Stock Exchange.
“I felt like a bolt of lightning had gone through me,” he has said. “The music just seemed to wrap its arms around me and never let go.” With no more musical training than the three years of piano lessons he had taken as a boy, he woke up one morning at 40 certain that he would conduct it.
In a tour de force that at the time could be regarded as a rich man’s self-indulgence if not an outright folly, he spent seven months coaching privately with Charles Zachary Bornstein, a recent graduate of the Juilliard School, whom he called “the most extraordinary teacher I’ve had of anything.” In addition he sought pointers and advice from a host of seasoned Mahlerians, including the crusty Georg Solti, whose skepticism he overcame in an intensive two-hour session in London.
Thus prepared, Mr. Kaplan hired the American Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir and the vocal soloists Birgit Finnila and Carole Farley; booked Avery Fisher Hall; and packed the house with invited global financiers, in town for a meeting of the International Monetary Fund. The few music critics who attended had pledged not to review, but Leighton Kerner, of The Village Voice, heralded the performance in print as “one of the five or six most profoundly realized Mahler Seconds” he had heard in a quarter century.
Since that improbable debut Mr. Kaplan has established himself as arguably the world’s foremost living authority on the Mahler Second. He owns the manuscript and is, with Renate Stark-Voit, co-editor of the new critical edition (published by Universal Edition), which the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna has designated the official score. He has recorded the work twice, in 1987 with the London Symphony Orchestra and in 2002 with the Vienna Philharmonic. The London Symphony version is the best-selling Mahler recording in history, having sold more than 180,000 copies; the Vienna Philharmonic version, the premiere recording of the new critical edition, is a best seller in its own right, with sales approaching 40,000.
Clive Gillinson, now the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, was in the cello section when Mr. Kaplan gave his first performance with the London Symphony at his own expense in 1984. “It was a monumental success,” Mr. Gillinson said last week. “By the time he wanted to record it, I was the manager of the orchestra. We recommended an audio engineer, and together they traveled around the U.K. trying out halls. That’s typical. With Gil, everything has to be exactly right.”
At the New York Philharmonic Mr. Kaplan will provide his own bells.
By now he has performed the Mahler Second about 100 times with 57 orchestras, the New York Philharmonic being the 58th. He has also recorded the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but he conducts nothing else. Most reviews have been ecstatic, peppered with adjectives like “shattering,” “sensational” and “uplifting,” though he has also taken a drubbing or two.
“One London reviewer said he could not wait to get out of the hall to listen to the buskers, the street musicians,” Mr. Kaplan said. “I think that was political. But the wonderful thing in London is that you get three or four notices, not just one.”
Mr. Kaplan has no agent and no apparent need of one. Invitations keep coming in, from institutions both starry and obscure. He has conducted student orchestras but also opened the prestigious Salzburg Festival in Austria, and he presented the Chinese premiere of the symphony in Beijing. Farther afield he has appeared in Melbourne and even Novosibirsk, in remotest Russia.
The Stark-Voit/Kaplan edition of the Second, which supersedes the critical edition by Erwin Ratz, includes more than 500 changes and corrections, based not only on Mahler’s hand-corrected copy of the printed score (unknown to Ratz) but also on more than a dozen other widely scattered sources. “Most of the differences the audience will never hear,” Mr. Kaplan said. “But a performer ought to have the piece as the composer left it. I don’t want to go into the question: Is the composer always right?”
“When Mahler came to the Vienna State Opera as a conductor,” Mr. Kaplan added, “a musician with 40 years experience said: ‘It’s amazing! He expects us to play everything in our parts.’ Now it’s true that you won’t get a great performance of Mahler’s Second just from following his thousands of details. But his secret as a conductor was that he could express feelings better than anyone. And his markings of expression show you how to do that.”
Scrupulous to a fault, Mr. Kaplan has annotated a conspicuous note for the timpanist. “It looks wrong, sounds wrong and people think it cannot possibly be right,” Mr. Kaplan said. “Almost everyone changes it. But Mahler saw it. He heard it, and never changed it.” The “wrong” note has been preserved, with an emphatic footnote.
Another curious passage involves strumming the upper string instruments like guitars instead of plucking them. “Mahler put the direction in the score, then he crossed it out,” Mr. Kaplan said. Rather than imitate guitar technique, he usually leaves the sound of the guitar in the realm of poetic suggestion, though he reserves the right to change his mind.
Apart from all the data Mr. Kaplan has amassed since 1982, how much has his imagination grown? Fundamentally, he said, there have been no more grand epiphanies.
“The intensity with which I studied the score the first time makes epiphanies unlikely, and they haven’t occurred,” he said. “What I have learned is how different one performance is from another, though you didn’t intend it to be. It all depends on the mood of the night. I’ve learned to go with my instinct, not to shut it down.”
Still, experience tells. The first moments of the Vienna Philharmonic recording, beginning with that mighty whoosh, lay claim to the music as the earlier recording with the London Symphony never does. For vibrancy and intensity of tone, for emotional specificity, variety of color and sense of direction, from the threshold of silence to the most volcanic eruptions, the Vienna performance justifies the sort of critical rapture that began with Mr. Kerner and has seldom flagged since. On the recorded evidence, it almost seems that with years of practice Mr. Kaplan has grown into his reviews.
Yet there are passages in the earlier reading that he prefers. A drier acoustic in Cardiff, Wales, where the recording was made, brought out short notes in higher definition, and he has a fondness for the Newberry Memorial Organ, which was recorded separately at Yale.
All the same, he agreed that the later recording was an improvement overall.
“It had to be,” he said. “I had to have changed. I was such a neophyte the first time. Technically I’m better, and can achieve more. At least I think I can. It’s impossible to get everything you want in Mahler. You only have two hands.”