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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.10 (Reconstructed by Joe Wheeler) (1910-11)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Robert Olson
Recorded in Grzegorz Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, 29th May to 3rd June 2000
NAXOS 8.554811 [78.59]


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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 completely.

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.

Tony Duggan


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