Mahler’s Tenth Symphony has fared well in the recording studios
over the years. Several distinguished accounts of the Deryck Cooke
performing version have appeared as well as recordings of other,
varyingly successful performing editions. The field has been led
by Sir Simon Rattle, who has recorded the Cooke edition twice,
most recently in a superb account with the Berliner Philharmoniker
Notwithstanding the excellence of Rattle’s Berlin revisitation
of the score his first effort with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra,
set down in 1980, still amply justifies its place on the collector’s
The work of Deryck
Cooke and his collaborators in bringing the draft score of
Mahler’s Tenth to the concert hall is surely one of the most
significant achievements of twentieth-century musicology.
Crucially, our ability to hear all of this score in performance
gives us a very different perspective on Mahler than might
have been the case had we been obliged to end our appreciation
of his work with the Ninth symphony. Readers who wish to know
more about Cooke’s work are strongly recommended to read Tony
Duggan’s essay on
the piece, which is part of his invaluable synoptic survey
of the Mahler Symphonies.
The symphony is
cast in five movements. I can do no better than quote Tony
Duggan’s excellent synopsis of the work, which encapsulates
in a few sentences the journey on which Mahler takes us in
this score – and on which conductors should take us.
Adagios frame two Scherzos, which themselves frame a strange,
tiny, achingly descriptive intermezzo marked "Purgatorio"
at the very centre. We walk with death-haunted nostalgia in
the first movement. Then through rather forced happiness in
the second movement. On to Purgatorial unease in the third
and tragic bitterness in the Fourth movement. At last we arrive
at a series of "death knell" drum strokes ushering
in the remarkable last movement. Here the work's darker elements
are reviewed and explored until terror from the first movement
is recalled before serenity and heart's ease is won at last.”
When I first listened
to Noseda’s new recording, which is splendidly played and
recorded, I was impressed, a few minor reservations aside.
However, I then moved on to compare his recording with Rattle’s
Berlin account and it was then that doubts began to arise.
Rattle starts with several advantages, one of them huge. In
the first place he has at his disposal one of the world’s
great, virtuoso orchestras – though the BBC Philharmonic squares
up very well in comparison. Secondly, Rattle’s recording is
compiled from two live performances that he and the Berliners
gave in September 1999. His version, therefore, benefits from
the extra degree of electricity that is so often generated
in a performance before an audience. On the other hand, Noseda,
working under studio conditions, had the opportunity to correct
minor blemishes. Also, Noseda is more familiar with his orchestra
than was Rattle with his at the time, for the EMI recording
was made just before Rattle took over the Berlin podium.
However, the crucial
advantage that Rattle holds over his rival is that of familiarity
with the score. I have read that by the time he made this
1999 recording he had conducted the work over 100 times. So
the interpretation is “lived in” to an extent that I don’t
think Noseda’s can be. And lest anyone should suspect that
familiarity is code for “routine” there are sufficient differences,
albeit mostly subtle, between Rattle’s two recordings to suggest
powerfully that this is not the case and that he has continued
to ponder the score and evolve his interpretation. It’s worth
saying one other thing about Rattle. It’s sometimes been suggested
that he micromanages as a conductor, especially in Mahler.
I don’t really accept that, though I think he does cross the
line sometimes in his Berlin recording of the Fifth, which
I hope he’ll remake one day. But his attention to detail is
fantastic and it’s very much in evidence in his reading of
the Tenth - always to the music’s advantage – though I detect
no micromanagement. Noseda is attentive to the score too but
I don’t believe he is on Rattle’s level in this regard.
We get an instance
of this difference between the two recordings almost at once.
The work begins with a long, exposed theme played by the violas
in unison. The melody is played beautifully by the BBC violas.
However, when one turns to Rattle his tempo is just a tiny
fraction broader than Noseda’s. It takes the Berlin violas
1:20 to play this melody before other sections of the orchestra
join in; Noseda takes 1:10. It may seem that I’m nitpicking
here for the sake of ten seconds but it just seems to me that
Rattle probes below the surface of the melody that little
bit more. Even more tellingly, at 1:07 Rattle’s violas make
a very perceptible accent that gives great point to the phrase
in question. In Noseda’s account the accent is absent and
once one has heard Rattle that absence disappoints. There
follows a lovely warm passage in which violins and trombones
predominate. This is very well handled by both conductors.
A little later the pace of the music picks up and, helped
by a wonderfully detailed Chandos recording, Noseda allows
all the strands in the orchestration to register, for instance
between 8:20 and 9:29. Rattle is no less attentive in this
passage but here the greater clarity of the Chandos recording
pays dividends. As the end of this movement draws nigh Noseda
brings out very well the nostalgia and gentle sadness of the
coda. However, the superfine soft playing of the Berliners
at this point and elsewhere in the score – such as in the
passage immediately before the climax of the first movement
– works to Rattle’s advantage.
before in reviews that I’m cautious about comparing timings.
However, I think this is a good point at which to compare
the timings for each of the movements in these two recordings,
for I do feel that on this occasion they are useful as a general
This table may
suggest that Rattle is just a touch more expansive than Noseda
in the outer adagios and just a little more fleet in his tempi
during the inner movements. As a generalisation I’d say that’s
borne out by listening to the two performances. The overall
differences between the two conductors in the outer movements
do not seem all that great but, for me, Rattle’s greater incisiveness
in the middle movements is telling.
tempo for II is quicker and much more exciting than Noseda’s.
Indeed, Noseda is deliberate, almost verging on the pedestrian.
Later on in the movement, where Mahler relaxes the tempo,
there’s no let up in tension in Rattle’s reading but Noseda
is not quite so successful in this respect. In his excellent
notes accompanying the Chandos disc David Matthews avers that
“Mahler had not written a scherzo so free from malice since
the Fifth Symphony.” That’s a hugely important point and the
music is highly reminiscent of the third movement of the Fifth.
Noseda’s performance is pointed and genial but the greater
point and drive of Rattle is to be preferred.
give convincing accounts of the short but important Purgatorio
movement. Again, Noseda’s basic pulse is a notch or two lower
than Rattle’s but I don’t think this is in any way to the
detriment of the music. However, I think Rattle is a clear
winner in IV, which is the movement in which I think Cooke
and his collaborators have been supremely successful in recreating
Mahler’s sound-world. In this movement, a grotesque waltz,
Mahler’s imagination really takes wing and Cooke and company
have orchestrated the music most skilfully and idiomatically.
This astonishing movement, which couldn’t be more different
to the extrovert first scherzo, is almost Gothic in character.
Aided and abetted by Cooke and his colleagues, especially
in their imaginative use of screeching woodwind, muted horns
and percussion, Mahler seems to conjure up a musical vision
of gargoyles. In Rattle’s hands these gargoyles snarl and
spit – and some of them pull faces and poke tongues! Noseda’s
performance is quite vivid in its own terms but Rattle goes
further and is more daring. Especially telling is the very
end of the movement, a sequence of eerily scored pages during
which subtle percussion catches the ear in particular. The
very first time I listened to the Noseda recording – in other
words, before I’d made any comparisons – I made a note that
I thought he was just a bit too steady in these pages. Interestingly,
when I compared his reading with Rattle’s the adopted tempi
are almost identical but Noseda’s performance still feels
slower. I should say, however, that the Chandos recording
reports the all-important soft percussion superbly.
And so to the
finale, which, as David Matthews says, begins in “utter darkness”.
In this respect the opening pages are not dissimilar to the
opening of the finale of the Sixth symphony. Here there’s
a small but telling difference between the two performances.
Inspired – and moved – by a funeral procession for a New York
fireman, killed in the line of duty, Mahler punctuates the
opening of the finale with a series of muffled drum stokes
and these dull thuds return later in the movement. Cooke’s
score has one such stroke as the very last sound in the scherzo
with another to open the finale. Rattle dispenses with the
second of these strokes and thereby effects a seamless transition
into the last movement. Noseda follows the score and we hear
both strokes. I haven’t got a strong view about this one way
or the other. Rattle’s solution works well on CD but I think
in concert it would be essential to run the two movements
into one. Otherwise, if there’s to be any break between the
two movements, no matter how brief, then I think both drum
strokes would be essential.
that the finale, despite its doom-laden opening, “brings redemption.”
This redemption is heralded by a luminous, extended flute
melody. It’s an incomparable passage, one of the most exquisite
in all Mahler. The BBC flautist delivers this solo beautifully.
However, the Berlin player (Emanuel Pahud?) is even more eloquent;
after the dark abyss at the start of the movement this lone
voice of innocence is extremely moving. When the strings take
up this melody there’s a sense of ineffable calm in Rattle’s
reading, which Noseda doesn’t quite match. The music grows
in intensity but then is abruptly cut off by another drum
stroke. Good though Noseda is in handling this build up, Rattle
is even more masterful and so when the drum intervenes brutally
it’s a particularly charged moment in his reading.
The agitated section
that follows is powerfully projected by Noseda and his players.
In many respects I feel this passage is another, darker reminiscence
of the scherzo of the Fifth, but refracted this time through
the Rondo Burleske of the Ninth. Eventually a stunning climax
is reached, when Mahler reprises the grinding discords that
formed the climax to the first movement – oh, so long ago,
it seems. Here Rattle once again departs from the Cooke scoring
by underpinning the discords with rolling drums. Noseda is
faithful to the score but I must say I’m persuaded by Rattle’s
additional percussion, which makes for a much more powerful
The final, long-breathed
pages are done with great feeling by both conductors, though
here again I think the extra refinement of the Berliners makes
its mark. In particular, there’s utter unanimity in the Berlin
violin section when they play their last despairing upward
swoop just before the end. The BBC players aren’t quite as
unanimous. At the end of this movement both conductors leave
one very thoughtful, though I find the experience has been
more intense, more probing with Rattle.
By an interesting
coincidence each of the recordings has notes by one of the
Matthews brothers. Colin Matthews writes for EMI and his essay
is good but David Matthews, allowed much more space by Chandos,
contributes a superb and authoritative essay.
This new recording
by Gianandrea Noseda has much to commend it. The BBC Philharmonic
plays exceptionally well for him and the Chandos sound is
stunning. The interpretation is one into which it’s clear
that a considerable amount of thought has gone. Unfortunately,
Noseda is up against formidable competition in the shape of
Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle’s 1999 recording is a special experience
and one of the finest recordings he’s made. I suspect that
Mahler’s Tenth is one of a handful of works that means a very
great deal to him; it certainly comes across as such, especially
in his Berlin recording. By comparison I find Noseda’s reading
to be more cautious and less fully formed. Though this Chandos
newcomer has many merits the hegemony of Sir Simon Rattle’s
Berlin recording is not challenged.