Classical: Variations on a theme of Gustav

Bossa nova? Cocktail jazz? Who else but Mahler.
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The Independent Culture
LAST YEAR, the American jazz pianist Uri Caine released an album on a German record label of music by Gustav Mahler. Caine adopted a radical approach in which relatively "straight" treatments of some of Mahler's most famous themes were mixed with free jazz and Jewish klezmer music, and played by an ensemble which included the cutting and scratching of a DJ.

The album, Urlicht/Primal Light, could have been expected to offend almost everyone, especially devoted Mahlerians. Instead, it ended up winning the Mahler Society Award for 1997 and received lavish critical approval from both sides of the musical fence. Now the album is to be followed by a series of live performances, with Caine and his octet - which includes the star clarinet player, Don Byron, setting out on an Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour of the UK.

Although the project sees some of Mahler's most exquisite music given far less respect than it is used to - transformed into bossa nova, say, or cocktail jazz - the results are often rich and satisfying. They are also the product of considerable research by Caine, who devoted a year to the enterprise. His various "deconstructions" also serve to underline aspects of Mahler's character, especially his ambivalence towards his own Jewishness (Mahler converted to Christianity), in ways that shed new light on the work. His version of "Abschied" from Das Lied von der Erde features the voice of a Hebrew cantor, and the third movement of the Symphony No 1 is arranged for klezmer band.

"In the Symphony No 1 piece we are playing Mahler's own notes but altering the style to make it sound more like a wedding band," says Caine, who is 41, and studied classical music in Pennsylvania before moving to New York to become one of the most respected jazz pianists on the scene. "The music is coming from that background anyway - Mahler was interested in all kinds of folk music - but we are subverting it by having the klezmer band improvise over the form of the piece, transforming it into free jazz."

Caine says his approach is partly developed from Leonard Bernstein's thesis that there are many Jewish elements in Mahler's music. "Even though Mahler converted to become the director of the Vienna Opera - he really wanted the gig, and because his Jewishness was socially unacceptable in a climate of anti-Semitism - all this ambivalence about his background is expressed in his music. I thought of using the voice of the cantor when I read a story from one of the biographies. Mahler is listening to this singer rehearsing at the opera house in Prague. It turns out that the singer used to be a cantor and Mahler asks him to sing for him, while he improvises at the piano. When the singer says that maybe he should have stayed with his old job and his old faith, Mahler says: `No, you and I both made the right decision.' I'm Jewish, and I'm into the culture, but really I'm coming more from a jazz thing." And if you ever wondered whether or not Mahler could swing, this could be your big chance to find out.

Uri Caine's Mahler Revisited: Purcell Room, London SE1 (0171-960 4201), Mon; Live Theatre, Newcastle (0191-232 1232), Tues; Irish Centre, Leeds (0113-242 5019), Wed; Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton (01703 595151), Thurs; Palace Theatre, Newark (01636 671156), 9 Oct; CBSO Centre, Birmingham (0121-236 5622), 10 Oct. Gustav Mahler/Uri Caine: `Urlicht/Primal Light' is available on Winter & Winter Records, distributed by Harmonia Mundi