When he died in 1911 Mahler left his Tenth Symphony complete
on four staves. The first and third movements were orchestrated to almost
final working stage. Some indications in varying density in the other
movements as to what the orchestration might start to be, might actually
be, or might be inferred to be were left too. No performing version of
that material can ever be called a "completion", though. Only Mahler would
have been able to complete the symphony and we know from his lifelong
working practice that it would have sounded different from the various
versions of the material that are now available from various editors to
the performer and listener in a thousand ways. So long as we keep in mind
that what we have in each instance is a presentation of "work in progress"
we ought to be able to keep a sense of perspective and gain a greater
insight into Mahler's music than we would if we had rejected any realisations
The best known and most performed version of the Tenth
material is the one by Deryck Cooke as recorded by conductors such as
Rattle, Levine, Inbal and Chailly. But two other performing versions
were being worked on at the same time by Clinton Carpenter (recently
recorded in Dallas by Andrew Litton and soon to be reviewed here) and
this one by Joe Wheeler. More recently versions by Remo Mazzetti, Rudolf
Barshai and by Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca have arrived. Mazzetti’s
two versions have already been recorded and Barshai’s awaits release.
From his performances at the annual Mahlerfest in Colorado
we know Robert Olson to be a direct and punctilious Mahler conductor,
a man with a mission to adhere to the letter of the score, though some
might say at the expense of passion and emotion. But if, like me, you
have time for the more cerebral approach to Mahler, one that allows
the listener more licence to fill in the emotional gaps than some conductors
allow, Olson's persuasive style will find some favour. This is his second
recording of the Wheeler version of the Tenth, of course. His world
premiere recording was made at the Colorado Mahlerfest of 1997 with
the resident orchestra. However, since that orchestra is a once-a-year
"pick-up" band of amateur, pro and semi-pro players they cannot
approach the playing of a full-time professional orchestra. On that
basis alone this Naxos recording now supersedes the earlier version.
That is not to say the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra are
first choice to hear playing Mahler, but they do well in a score they
had never played before and learned for the sessions and they are recorded
with clarity and immediacy with the score’s details well rendered.
The first movement has always been the most familiar
part of the symphony and the one that largely needs little or no work
if the editor adheres to presenting Mahler's thoughts as they stood.
It is most notable for its structural integrity and Olson steers a characteristically
central line through Mahler’s deceptively simple design that means we
are left to appreciate the complexities for ourselves. He is especially
good at the shadowy, spectral passages, though. Also the sparer, less
dense scoring of Wheeler’s edition seems to suite Olson’s more circumspect
approach. The brassy outburst that signifies the arrival of the central
crisis in the movement flows out as if the final note in a phrase but
notice how this edition adds some timpani strokes in the succeeding
passage where Cooke’s does not. The famous dissonance that then follows,
with the high and piercing trumpet, is well contained inside the structure
but maybe it doesn’t sear as it can even though it falls well within
Olson’s overall, clear-eyed philosophy.
It is from the second movement onwards that listeners
who are familiar with the version by Deryck Cooke will notice the differences
in the Wheeler score and it's quite a task to comment on these and the
interpretation by Olson separately. There's evidence to suggest Mahler
was viewing this as a bipartite symphony with the first and second movements
forming Part I and I think Olson is aware of this because, as in Colorado,
there seems a clear intention of presenting "the other side of the coin"
in the second movement. The Wheeler score’s greater emphasis on the
brass seems to help Olson deliver a really ethnic ländler too.
Note also the presence of the xylophone, an instrument Cooke both used
and then discarded as his edition developed. It is certainly a distinctive
sound but we will never know if Mahler himself would have retained it
in the end and somehow I doubt it. The confidence of the Polish orchestra
is severely tested by the complex metre of this movement and, by and
large, they do very well with transparent detail conveyed though other
orchestras do even better.
For the performances of this score in Boulder in 1997
Remo Mazzetti wrote: "Wheeler alone allowed Mahler's own leaner textures
to come through clearly. In this, Wheeler's final version is closer
to "Das Lied Von Der Erde" than any of the other versions,
not because Wheeler thought that this should be so, but because Mahler's
own orchestration of the first half of the symphony strongly suggested
this." I'm glad Mazzetti used the word "closer" regarding relationships
between the sound of the Wheeler version and Das Lied Von der Erde rather
than "close". There is a whole world of difference between what we hear
in this Tenth version and that other masterpiece from Mahler's final
triptych, particularly the translucency Mahler manages to obtain from
his chamber-like textures in Das Lied. But Mazzetti's point is to be
borne in mind. Wheeler does indeed make the case for a sparer sound
palette being explored within a recognisable line of descent that claims
parentage to "Das Lied Von der Erde" rather than any other
work in the Mahler canon. It is often said that Wheeler is the least
interventionist of the various editors. Compared with Clinton Carpenter
he most certainly is but it is more complex than that, as Remo Mazzetti
also argued. This is all illustrated most in the fourth movement, the
second scherzo. Wheeler's version has a lot to tell us when compared
with Cooke. Note how freer he is in his use of percussion, for example.
It is in this movement that Mahler's nightmare visions, the one's that
have threatened chaos all along, seem to be winning. Olson helps by
not rushing the music and also knowing when to slow even more to mark
the rhythmic effects, grinding the music into our minds very tellingly.
He also catches well the shifts of mood laced into the music that becomes
jagged and restless with the close very impressive indeed. Wheeler seems
to take us further into the century than Cooke giving us a tantalising
"might have been" glimpse of where Mahler could have gone.
The most famous passage in any Mahler Tenth is when
the composer recalls the funeral of a serving fireman beneath his hotel
in New York in 1910 and the drum struck in commemoration. There is dispute
as to what exactly Mahler heard that day. Was it a single stroke, or
a short tattoo? Whichever it was, Mahler asks in the score for a single
blow. There is further dispute as to what kind of drum should be used
and how hard it should be struck. For myself I believe the more recent
trend of getting the percussionist to hit his drum as hard as possible
is mistaken. Whatever Mahler heard I don't believe he meant the kind
of cannonade you often hear. Olson is of the more restrained persuasion.
What someone familiar with the Cooke version will notice most about
the Wheeler version of the opening of the fifth movement is the fact
that the ascending figure that accompanies the drum strokes is given
to strings rather than the solo tuba and is also delivered at a quicker
tempo. For me, Cooke's solution always sounded like Fafner waking up
in Wagner's Ring and I prefer Wheeler even though I have latterly been
persuaded that the tuba was what Mahler meant all along. This is the
problem with this kind of project. In the end we will never know what
is right and what isn’t, even whether the concept of "right"
and "wrong" can appropriately be applied.
In the quicker passages of the movement Olson builds
superbly to the return of the first movement dissonance and reinforces
is a deeply satisfying way that sense of tight architectural design
which is always so surprising in a work that was left uncompleted by
its composer. Olson’s references back to the Purgatorio and to the two
scherzos come off well, as too does the greater sense of dynamic contrasts
that were so telling in the fourth movement. The final, clinching dissonance
and the piercing trumpet passage’s return carries the same purging quality
and a sense of "full circle" is achieved. For this is such a consistently
"thought through" performance I am sure you will find it as convincing
as I did. The long conclusion of the symphony is restrained and somewhat
understated which, for me, means it conveys great nobility. Others might
prefer more passion. I wouldn't disagree with that from time to time.
Though I must confess that I now dislike the cymbal crash that Wheeler
puts into the score at the moment of resolution.
The recorded sound from Naxos is admirably clear and
well balanced with just the right amount of atmosphere that never gets
in the way of the all-important detail. The Polish orchestra lacks the
last few ounces of power that the better known ensembles can bring and
also seem just a step or two short from hurling themselves into the
more complex rhythmic passages with rock solid confidence, notably in
the second movement. However, they are clearly well prepared and will
give great pleasure.
This is a release of great importance to the Mahler
discography and is more than worthy of joining it for the fact that
it is a version of the score different from the one we are used to but
more because of the refined and intelligent interpretation of Robert
Olson. In the final analysis it is always the quality of performance
that I believe should be looked at first in Mahler’s Tenth before thought
is given to which edition is used. Easy availability of Wheeler's edition
does not, however, herald a replacement for Cooke's rather an alternative
to it, especially when there are recordings by Rattle (EMI CDC 7 54406
2) reviewed here and Sanderling
(Berlin Classics 0094422BC) reviewed
here to choose from. They delve even deeper into the secrets of
Mahler’s final world-view. In the end Cooke’s decisions are more satisfying
overall than Wheeler’s because Cooke and his advisors show greater skill
and greater fluency in the handling of the orchestral palette. There
are times when I think that Wheeler’s rather Spartan passages betoken
a lack of skill rather than artistic intent.
This is a must for all Mahlerites and at Naxos price
will be a first choice for many investigating Mahler for the first time.
There can be few objections to that with such a fine performance as
this leaving aside the score used. Highly recommended.