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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 10 (1911)
A performing version of the draft for the Tenth Symphony prepared by Deryck Cooke (1919-1976) in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996); Colin Matthews (b.1946); David Matthews (b.1943)
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 8-10 August 2007. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10456 [78:24]
Experience Classicsonline

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 (see review). 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 shelves.

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.

“Two 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.

I’ve commented 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 guide.

  Noseda    Rattle
23:50 25:11
II 12:36 11:24
III  4:14  3:55
IV 13:12  12:06
V 24:08  24:47
Total   78:24  77:26

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.

Rattle’s basic 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.

Both conductors 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.

Matthews says 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 climax.

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.

John Quinn





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