An ‘almost is’ or a ‘never was’, Mahler’s Tenth has always divided conductors and critics. The musicologist and broadcaster Deryck Cooke – the first of whose two ‘performing editions’ of the Tenth appeared in 1964 – has always maintained that the symphony belongs in the first category; that said, noted Mahlerians – Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado among them – remain unconvinced; they have only ever performed the completed Adagio and nothing else. Fortunately others – Wyn Morris, Eugene Ormandy, Michael Gielen and Sir Simon Rattle especially – take the opposite view, and have given us powerful and persuasive readings of these Cooke editions; indeed, Rattle has recording the work twice, first with the Bournemouth Symphony in 1980 and then with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1999 (both EMI).
Mark Wigglesworth is another advocate of Cooke’s work who’s also recorded the symphony twice. His first account – with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – was not released commercially but issued as a cover-mounted CD with the BBC Music Magazine (Vol. 2 No. 12). Since then it’s become something of a cult classic, being traded on eBay and much-coveted ‘rips’ made available online. And a fine version it is too, although anyone who has heard Ormandy, Gielen or Rattle may beg to differ. I’ve chosen to compare this new Melbourne recording with Wigglesworth’s earlier one and Rattle’s two; it’s a rough contest, for the passion and commitment of the latter make them very special discs indeed.
Before we begin I urge listeners to read the late Tony Duggan’s masterly analysis of this symphony and his comments on the three Cooke editions; the third, incorporating changes made by Colin and David Matthews, was published in 1989 and forms the basis of both Wiggleworth’s recordings and Rattle’s second. Indeed, this is now the authoritative Cooke version and the one that seems most satisfying, perhaps because it’s less interventionist than its rivals.
For what it’s worth Wigglesworth’s Adagio is marginally slower
second time around – 24:35 as opposed to 23:24 – the southern
audience far quieter than the asthmatic northern one. Far more
striking is the beautifully moulded string playing at the start
of the Melbourne performance. This is a pretty good guide of
what to expect here, a more carefully cultivated reading that
lacks the dramatic edge – raw emotion, even – of his earlier
reading. That said, he builds and shapes this movement most
effectively, and I was impressed by the passionate intensity
he finds here. The new recording is more atmospheric too, woodwind
trills and plucked strings superbly caught, but for all its
Wunderhorn lightness this Adagio is a little short on shade,
that major irruption at 17:25 much less unsettling than it is
in Rattle’s hands.
The timings of the first Scherzo – at eleven-and-a-half minutes
– are almost identical, but once again it’s the character of
the two performances that’s so very different. And even though
the BBC recording is closer and less refineD than the ABC one
there’s a palpable tension to the earlier performance that makes
it feel much more like a live event. One senses also that there’s
more of that ambiguous Mahlerian conviviality and suppleness
of rhythm/phrasing here than there is in the later account.
Curiously, the same could be said of the two Rattle recordings;
for all the sophistication and polish of the Berlin performance
the well-recorded Bournemouth one has a rough, elemental energy
that never ceases to thrill and unnerve me.
At the start of the Purgatorio Wigglesworth and his Welsh band phrase more naturally, although in mitigation the wall-eyed quality of what follows is more keenly conveyed in the later reading. Similarly, I was most taken with the sheer musicality and liquid inner detail that Wigglesworth coaxes from the Australians in the second Scherzo. Indeed, the later performance strikes me as a much more complete – and coherent –realisation of the somewhat ragged and ‘bitty’ Welsh one; crucially, Wigglesworth delivers more of the echt-Mahlerian schmaltz and bipolarity in his second account.
In fact, while I prefer the BBC recording in the first two movements the pendulum swings decisively in favour of the ABC one in the last three. The hair-raising drum thwacks – muffled thuds in the manner of a funeral cortège first time around – are far more immediate, if less apt, now. The Australian orchestra play with an aching beauty of line and an implacable weight that’s deeply affecting, even if they can’t match the Berlin and Bournemouth bands for sheer amplitude and unanimity of attack. Still, the sustained orchestral shrieks can’t fail to impress, the lucidity and breadth of the ABC recording adding immensely to the impact of this most curdled music. Even those quiet, stoic passages are more convincingly caught second time around, and here one really does sense the raptness and concentration of a live performance.
Anyone seeking a simple either/or verdict here will be disappointed, as both accounts have their strengths and weaknesses. Broadly, the earlier performance seems much earthier and more spontaneous, the later one tonally more refined and much wider in terms of emotional and dynamic range. Sadly, neither has the compelling narrative or proselytizing zeal of Rattle’s two accounts which, for me at least, remain the benchmarks for this work.
Good - very good – in parts, but not the penetrating performance I’d hoped for.