Mahler's Unfinished: The Tenth Symphony

This Mahler 10 puts the Minnesota Orchestra up there as one ofthe World's great orchestras

Mahler's Unfinished: The Tenth Symphony

In a previous Mahler post, we compared five versions of Das Lied von der Erde; we've also had a look at Des Knaben Winderhorn (Boulez conducting) while James Newby offered a handful of Mahler songs on his disc I wonder as I wander on BIS.

We'll stay with BIS for today's post, which concentrates on a blazing new recording of Mahler's Tenth: in the third edition (1989) of the Deryck Cooke completion. By far the most complete movement is the first and many conductors will only perform this first movement. But the pull to hear the complete symphony, given the sketches were available, was undeniable. The avid collector may come across completions of Mahler's Tenth by Clinton Carpenter another by Joe Wheeler, the two most famous aside from the one that created history: that by Deryck Cooke. Here, we hear the final version of 1989; it's important to credit other "voices" who had an unput along the way: Berthold Goldschmidt and Colin and David Matthews.

The completions took a long time to come to fruition because Alma Mahler was against the idea, until she heard a tape of the Cooke. The stance of Classical Explorer is forged by an unforgettable peformance of the Cooke in the early 1980s by the Hallé Orchestra under Skrowaczewski; never to be forgotten, its effect can never be replicated. But Vänskä comes close with his Minnesotans, couched in a recording of the very highest standards.

The first movement is on a vast scale:

One climax is particularly shattering, offering a nine-note dissonance (about 20 minutes in), chords separated by a orchestral, sustained, "screams" on trumlet and then high violins. This is, remember, Mahler post-Ninth Symphony, post-Das Lied von der Erde; in amongst this are ghost of Austrian Ländler, shades and spectres robbed of their joy and appearing now with spooky malevolance. The recording itself (Producer Robert Suff) is astonishing and not just in the highest dynamics: listen to the almost inaudible final moments (start from a bout five minutes before the end) and how Vänskä controls his players perfectly.

The second movement presents the first Scherzo. Vänska is frenzied, even manic at points. Exactly as the music should be!:

The second movement Scherzo is a quasi-infernal collage of dances. It takes a conductor of Vänskä's stature to realise the modernistic side of Mahler's stark juxtapositions; it is, in modern parlance, quite a ride; but includes oments of uniutterable tenderness. The Minnesotans are on fire; most notably in those heart-melting moments:

By far the shortest movement is "Purgatorio," the third, a phantasmagoric spell that makes reference to "Das irdische Leben" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Slender though it might be, this is the central pivot of the symphony's five-movement structure, and it introduces some ideas that will be used again in the finale.

It is framed by a second Scherzo, which presents Mahler at his most modernistic (just listen to the unapologetic shrillness first gesture!):

Possibly the most remarkable passage in the symphony was inspired by a passing funeral of a fireman that the Mahlers (Gustav and Alma) had witnessed from the window of their New York apartment. It occurs at the beginning of the finale, but it feels almost like a transition into some sort of infernal space. Deadened thwacks are answered by low grumblings; this is the finale of the Sixth Symphony, but even more terrifying.

The 24-minute finale works with materials (and conflicts) from what we have heard, attempts at reconciliation that finally arrive at a place of peace.

The recording, under the watchful eye of producer Robert Suff, is remarkable; and I cannot recommend Jeremy Barham's booklet notes highly enough, an absolute model of their kind - and then some. Vänskä's Mahler cycle is a major recording event, and it feels fitting to extract this symphony as exemplar. It also puts the Minnesota Orchestra up there as one ofthe World's great orchestras.