Mahler Symphony No.10 Warner Classics

Déjà Review: this review was first published in 2000 and the recording is still available.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.10 (completed Deryck Cooke)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 1999, Philharmonie, Berlin
Originally reviewed as the EMI release
Warner Classics 5569722 [77]
Simon Rattle has performed this score more times than any other conductor. In many ways it’s become his signature work. So it’s appropriate it turned out to be this that he conducted with the Berlin Philharmonic in his first appearance with them after being named their Chief Conductor, and also for EMI to record both performances from last year’s Berlin Festival to use for this issue. But I can’t help feeling sympathy for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra who performed it under him many times and helped refine what his first recording of the work – with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra also for EMI – showed what was already an almost complete grasp of the piece. Something tells me that a CBSO recording played in a venue known better to the EMI engineers than the Philharmonie in Berlin would have been near-definitive, certainly as regards Rattle’s own interpretation. But that is not now to be.

This is not the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of playing any of the performing versions of the symphony Mahler left uncompleted at his death. As well as Deryck Cooke, Clinton Carpenter, Joe Wheeler and Remo Mazzetti Jnr have all entered the field and there’s rumoured to be another in the works from a well-known conductor. If you are morally opposed to any of these enterprises you will not be interested in what follows. For myself I believe we are better off knowing what Mahler left behind than not, and this, rather than in any way trying to “complete” Mahler’s work, is to a greater or lesser extent what Deryck Cooke and the others were in the business of doing. The edition used here is the third and final version of the Cooke with a change or two made by Rattle himself, but more of that later. The Cooke version will probably always remain the most performed of the performing editions, though I would make a strong case for Joe Wheeler’s which can be heard in a “live” recording taken from the 1997 Colorado Mahlerfest, and is available from their web site, conducted by Robert Olson who will soon be recording the Wheeler score again for Naxos.

Rattle sees the first movement Adagio in one breath, an arch-like structure, evidence of his familiarity and conviction. The opening figure on violas is very spare-sounding and then the adagio proper presents us with a cultured string tone. This is something of a disappointment, let me say. Comparison with the earlier Bournemouth recording shows more bloom and rapture in their strings in a recording which, in sound terms, is generally more atmospheric. Evidence of EMI’s comparative unfamiliarity with the present venue, perhaps ? Also here in Berlin Rattle appears not to have divided his violins left and right as he usually does. I wonder what lay behind that decision. In the Development section, however, the excellence of the Berliners’ playing is clear. The woodwind contributions, for example, are especially fine in music where Mahler’s chamber-like textures are explored in detail and where only the best players will therefore do. What we hear then is an excellent delivery of an aspect of Mahler’s later style – sparer and less rich than earlier – and the Berliners duly respond. In the movement’s (and the work’s) central crisis, where a searing brass chorale is followed by a long-held high note on a solo trumpet, notice the organ-like quality of the massed brass and then the refining fire Rattle charges into the music with the high violins throwing an arc of fire over the landscape. In the aftermath Rattle splendidly conveys the feeling of stoically carrying on in spite of the terror just experienced. Nowhere does Rattle really let the music rest. Always there is the undercurrent that the holding on is finger-tip thin.

One of the most striking aspects of the second movement, the first of the work’s two scherzos, is the frequent metrical changes that carry to a logical extreme similar metrical changes in the Sixth Symphony’s scherzo. In this, as in other aspects of this work, Mahler places himself among the new music of the century that was exploding all around him but here allowing it to illustrate his own troubled state of mind. After all, what is being mapped in this work is Mahler’s own state of mind under the pressure from his tempestuous marriage, at that time under the greatest strain of its short life. Exclamations of his torment litter the score pages as proof of this, remember. This music holds no fears for the Berliners and Rattle seems to revel in throwing every challenge at them and hearing them respond with sure precision. He strides forward too, pressing on in a way I don’t think he quite did in Bournemouth. The sharp, analytical recording means we hear everything also. However, as in the first movement, the atmosphere in the Bournemouth recording is missing, though the sound palette does suit the performance of this movement well. The tiny Purgatorio third movement that now follows is light and airy without some of the character of the Bournemouth playing and does expose the lighter bass end of this sound picture. I mention this because I notice it, but don’t let it be a determining factor in whether you buy this excellent recording or not. In the second of the two Berlin performances there was a bad error by the orchestra which suggests they were never quite inside the peculiar nature of this movement

In the second Scherzo Rattle understands perfectly that this is a conflict piece, again a map of Mahler’s state of mind, contrasting demonic scherzo material with happy waltz: pulling one way, then another, setting up an inner dynamic. Notice the volatility Rattle causes to come over the music as the dark coda approaches. Here I really do miss Joe Wheeler’s solution to what has always been, to me, a weaker section of Cooke’s score.

The end of the movement is marked by a single stroke on a large military drum, inspired by the sight and sound of a fireman’s funeral in the street outside Mahler’s New York hotel in 1910, but coming to mean far more than that to Mahler. In Rattle’s Bournemouth recording this “percussion event” (to quote Thomas Ades) and its subsequent repetition in the last movement was too loud: a cannonade against which the listener had to steal themselves and surely not what Mahler had in mind. Here in Berlin Rattle has reined back the sound and what we hear is much more a part of the texture and for that change I praise him. Another stroke on the drum should open the last movement but Rattle always cuts this so as not to make any break between the last two movements.

I’ve always been uneasy with Cooke’s solution to the ascending figure that opens the movement. Played on the bass tuba it sounds too much like Fafner the dragon stirring in Wagner’s Ring. Wheeler’s string bass solution is surely more Mahlerian. That apart, Rattle’s climb out from the pit of despair to a melody on the solo flute that moves and impresses with each subsequent hearing is more chaste and rapt than in Bournemouth. There is also some superb string playing, the Berliners delivering rapt pianissimo. In the movement’s central crisis, a reprise of the central crisis from the first movement, we come to another of Rattle’s changes. At two points he reinforces with extra percussion to ram home climactic power. You can argue that the whole point of such a return of this crisis material is that it is and should sound the same. But then Mahler seldom repeated himself and might have added such an extra weight to the sound had he lived. There is a lot to the Tenth that is a clutch of “might have beens” so there must be some latitude allowed for, I suppose. On the whole, I prefer the passage without the extra percussion, but make up your own minds.

The coda is one of the most consoling and profound passages in all Mahler. All of the editors rise to the occasion, perhaps compelled by the shade of Gustav Mahler himself to deliver what he surely meant us to hear. The playing of the Berlin orchestra under Rattle is here a model of poise. Again, I miss the bloom on the strings we heard in Bournemouth but that was more the result of acoustic and balance than of a superior orchestra, I think. The Bournemouth Orchestra played well but the Berliners have a greater, more complete grasp on the music in the end, and Rattle too has moved on. He is here, as always, a compelling guide to this work and the Berliners are now clearly his to command. His total identification with this score is remarkable and this new recording will be first choice for many. However, for the Cooke version I would also not wish to be without Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales whose “live” performance can be found on an old BBC Magazine cover disc, or Wyn Morris’s first ever recording of the second Cooke edition, newly re-issued on Phillips. Remo Mazzetti’s first version I find far too fussy and finicky and Leonard Slatkin, who conducts the RCA recording of it, has no Mahler style to speak of. The only recording of the even fussier Clinton Carpenter version is hard to find and unremarkably performed. But the fascinating Joe Wheeler score will soon become even more widely available and I look forward to that. Maybe we can persuade Rattle to record that too.

Tony Duggan

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