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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1811)
Symphony No. 10 (1910)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Daniel Harding
rec. Musikverein, Wien, Grosser Saal, October 2007
Experience Classicsonline

“Mahler goes in such an extreme direction. The music is in a way so modern and unexpected, and so modern, that if you listen to it a first time it’s very possible to be confused by the modernity and the extreme nature of the musical language”.

So writes Daniel Harding about Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Mahler only completed the Adagio, which is often performed on its own. Yet it was written as part of a planned five movement whole, and wasn’t meant to stand forever as a fragment. There are valid reasons for studying the rest of the piece if only to hear the Adagio in context. That’s why people have been intrigued by performance versions. Even though we’ll never know what Mahler might have done had he completed the symphony, at least we can listen to what he left. Here Harding has chosen ”Cooke III”, the last version by Deryck Cooke with input from Berthold Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers, Colin and David. Even if the composer might have revised it later, it’s still echt Mahler. As Harding puts it, “The body is Mahler’s, the clothes have sometimes been chosen for him”.
There aren’t many recordings of this performance version, but this is going to be one of the essentials because Harding’s approach is highly original. The manuscript was written after Mahler discovered that Alma had betrayed him. Volume 4 of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange’s monumental biography of the composer leaves no doubt as to how traumatic the news was to the composer. The manuscript itself bears witness to the intensity of Mahler’s feelings.
Professor de La Grange’s latest volume shows clearly that, although Mahler was devastated by events, he resolved to change. He reconciled with Alma and left Vienna. Whether the marriage would have lasted isn’t relevant. In artistic terms, Mahler regained his momentum and may well have gone on to greater things had fate not intervened. Harding’s Mahler 10 captures this creative resurgence. It’s a clear-headed, almost visionary way of hearing Mahler.
The expansive, “searching” theme in the Adagio here is played with such delicacy that it seems to shimmer. The second theme is rich and warm. If there’s a parallel here it’s with the Third Symphony with its images of Alma and of summer. The themes flow beside each other. It’s an unusual kind of interaction that doesn’t resolve. Perhaps Mahler might have revised it to make it more conventional, but here the tentative ambiguity makes complete sense. Mahler is exploring new territory, both in his music and in his life. Harding observes the moments of near silence, hovering on the brink, so to speak, before the cataclysmic chord explodes. Gone now are the allusions to summer and the soaring vistas of the Third Symphony. “This very famous “scream” chord in the first movement, a nine-note dissonance, is an astonishing cry on anguish …. it’s pure Edvard Munch in music”, says Harding.
It’s so powerful here that it takes your breath away, yet it’s totally integrated with the rest of the piece, where tensions have been building up inexorably, despite the diaphanous textures. Even at this stage, though, sharp clear chords ring out like final echoes, before they, too, disintegrate. The idea of confluent, unreconciled themes appears again in the first Scherzo, but this time with turbulence. The swaggering Weltlauf theme is unsettling, brutally mocking the refinement of the Adagio. Harding deftly juggles the rapid changes of meter, tempo and theme Mahler spews out, but this is dangerous ground, and Harding keeps the pace nervy and agitated.
This enhances the relative simplicity of the Purgatorio. It’s as succinct as a Lied, for good reason. It connects it to Das Irdische Leben, the song in which the child starves to death, its cries ignored. For Mahler it’s a recurring image. It appears in the third movement of the Fourth Symphony, where it is defeated by the final movement, based on Das himmlisches Leben, where dead children feast in heaven. Song is absolutely fundamental to Mahler’s whole sound-world. To sneer at the role of song in Mahler is to be like the mother who ignores her child. The child dies. As does any chance of really appreciating the deeper levels of Mahler’s music. The Purgatorio is important, and Harding gives it the gravitas it deserves.
On the title page of the second Scherzo, Mahler writes “The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a preposition, but this whole work is a kind of preposition. It’s fascinating because it’s open-ended. Obviously Mahler would have revised it, but how? A delicate yet quirky waltz circulates through this movement, in counterpoise to the demonic tensions. Trios predominate, adding another dimension.
The Finale is some of the most mysterious music in the whole Mahler canon. Alma said that the sequence of drumbeats with which the movements starts refers to the funeral of a fireman the couple witnessed from their hotel room in New York. No doubt Mahler was moved by the event, but he must have witnessed lots of funerals, and wrote funeral marches into his music many times before. On the manuscript, Mahler writes cryptically “Only you know what this means”. If it were just a reference to the fireman’s procession, why the secrecy? Was it something far more intimate, which Alma did not wish to confront? We will never know. This music seems far too emotionally raw merely to describe an external event. Harding doesn’t take the fireman story too literally. Here, the section has a hollow, metallic quality that indicates anguish so profound that it can’t be fully articulated. Even the “scream” in the Adagio can’t compare to the paralysing numbness of these moments.
It would be all too easy to hear the Tenth as some kind of neurotic death wish, but the more we learn about Mahler, the less likely this seems. Professor de La Grange’s volume 4 proves conclusively that Mahler was far too strong a personality to wallow in self-indulgent pathos. This reinforces current performance practice, which focus on trajectory, illumination and resolution, the triumph of life over death. From the abyss of the “funeral” section emerges an ethereal solo. Gradually the ascending line fills out with massed strings. Suddenly a glorious, vivacious theme enters, and the melodic line floats ever upward. There’s that extraordinary leap onto another level, a long, clear note extending, unbroken for many bars. It’s a breakthrough, as in the Fourth and Seventh symphonies, for example. It’s liberation. The anguish of the earlier movements is sublimated into a spectacular wash of sound.
There aren’t many recordings of this performance version. I’m a big fan of Gielen, but Harding has a far more polished orchestra, which is a plus, for despite its sketchy character, this is sophisticated music which needs an orchestra as good as the Wiener Philharmoniker. In Bernstein’s time, the Wieners may not have had a “Mahler tradition”, but they’ve had plenty of experience since then, and as musicians they are outstanding. The Concertgebouw have an unbroken Mahler tradition, but this isn’t a typical Mahler symphony, and it holds them back. Chailly’s more recent experience in Leipzig shows he’s capable of much more unusual work. Then there’s Rattle, who has been conducting versions of the Tenth for decades. Aged 12, Harding got his first Saturday job with Rattle, but by 19 was conducting independently, debuting with the Berlin Philharmonic at 21, mentored by Claudio Abbado. Harding is very different indeed from Rattle. This is not a value judgement. Conductors at this level are just too individual .
Not long ago, only conductors over 65 or preferably dead got any respect. Now it seems the fashionable ones are all under 35. Harding, though, is in a league of his own. Although he’s only 32, he has a wealth of experience behind him and has been conducting at the highest levels. There aren’t many others who come close. Harding’s style is very mature, yet still full of adventure. It often takes a while for audiences to adjust to the new and original, but Harding’s “time will come”. This is a truly distinctive recording of Mahler’s Tenth, to challenge and stimulate.
Anne Ozorio


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