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Symphony 3 etc.
Lyrita New Recording
Sarah Beth Briggs
Symphony No. 10 (1910)
rec. Musikverein, Wien, Grosser Saal, October 2007
GRAMMOPHON 4777347 [78.00]
“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
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
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.
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