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Mahler Symphony No. 10: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (Conductor). Birmingham Symphony Hall,23.2.2011. (GR)

It is always interesting to compare how a composer's style may have changed during their lifetime. But any such differences are, as often as not, more significantly influenced by context. The circumstances surrounding the conception of Mahler's Tenth Symphony are a case in point: his mindset whilst living on borrowed time was compounded by the goings-on of his socialite wife Alma. Yet he seemed determined to conquer the curse of the ninth, first with Das Lied von der Erde and then with the sketches he made for his Tenth during the summer of 1910.

It wasn't until 1959 that Deryck Cooke found that much more of the score could be realised than had been thought possible - without any free composition, purely by filling out the texture. It was Cooke's 'Performing Version' in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews that was played by the CBSO at the Birmingham Symphony Hall on Feb 23rd 2011. Coincidentally it was the tenth in the Birmingham Mahler Cycle; we are just over halfway. Sakari Oramo was in charge, one of the CBSO 'old-boys'. Now with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonia, the Finnish Radio Symphony and Kokkola Opera, Oramo extended the British repertoire of the CBSO during his ten-year tenure that started in 1998. This included works by John Foulds and Constant Lambert.

In the opening Adagio, the violas used by Mahler to set the pace and mood of the movement produced an instant feeling of empathy for his predicament; the CBSO viola players were desolate and aching, well led as usual by Christopher Yates. Oramo alternately built and relaxed the intensity with an expert's guiding touch. Although expected, when the nine-note dissonant chord came it still created a violent impact, a veritable stab in the heart. The music swept along, a superb example of Mahler's ability to combine angst with beauty, seemingly without any hope of reconciliation.

Oramo mastered the complexities of the changes of pace in the following Scherzo. The exuberance of the Ländler took control of the auditorium. And yet the movement was not entirely free of pain, Mahler's discomfort reduced to twinges of dissonance, pangs of pain well emphasised I thought by the conductor.

The initial woodwind exchanges painted a vivid picture of the composer's summer retreat as the brief Purgatorio (Allegro moderato) began. But the CBSO had nothing to atone for: the instrumental solos were sharp and precise. There was some solid ensemble playing including a delicious finish from the double basses led by John Tattersdill.

Speculation regarding where Mahler's music might have gone had he lived on was raised in the second Scherzo. Mahler's troubles were no longer purely physical; the head began to rule the heart. The Symphony Hall resounded in keeping with the inscription on his sketch notes for the fourth movement - 'The devil dances it with me'. The E minor waltz contained more flamboyancy and extrovert turns than have ever been seen on 'Strictly'. However I thought that at times the string section missed their inspirational leader Laurence Jackson; they were not quite as threatening as I have previously experienced, or was that how Oramo read it?

Out of the foreboding impression created at the beginning of the Finale came light, a triumph of love over death. For me these contrasts are what make the magic that is Mahler. But it was a far from easy triumph. The bass drum boomed a fearsome dread, a trepidation accentuated by the distinctive tuba strains of Graham Sibley. The ethereal flute solo from Marie-Christie Zupancic brought a breath-taking hush to the auditorium. The forces of darkness returned but from the trauma and chaos wrought by Oramo and the CBSO there emerged the seemingly unending trumpet of Jonathan Holland, easily my supreme Mahler moment (see Having come to terms with his own fate, the music expressed a serenity and peace of mind - Mahler's harmonious recollections of Alma.

This realisation begun by Mahler, taken up by Cooke and Goldschmidt, revised and finalised with the assistance of the Matthews brothers in 1976 and performed by the CBSO under Oramo, was I thought a combination that captured the sheer power and radiance of Mahler. If Gustav himself had been listening, I'm sure he would have approved.

Geoff Read

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