Rattle and LSO can’t quite make a case for the Mahler/Cooke Tenth Symphony

Tue May 08, 2018 at 11:41 am
Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 10 was performed in the Deryck Cooke completion by Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra Monday night at David Geffen Hall.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 was performed in the Deryck Cooke completion by Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra Monday night at David Geffen Hall.

The London Symphony Orchestra, under Simon Rattle, concluded their weekend series of Gustav Mahler’s last symphonic works Monday night at David Geffen Hall with the Symphony No. 10. The evening was one of those events where the discrete parts of a classical concert, the subject and the performance, ran on parallel tracks rather than woking as unified whole.

Hearing a performance of the Tenth Symphony in its entirety is an odd experience, doubly so hearing in the concert hall. This was no different Monday, where one’s critical listening and thinking was drawn to the high quality of the playing while wrestling with the question of whether the symphony should be played at all.

This, of course, is because Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 is not really a Mahler symphony; it is a draft left in various stages of completion at the composer’s death in 1911. The opening Adagio was completely finished (though without any revisions as Mahler never heard it) and is performed and recorded regularly and successfully as a standalone work. The other four movements were left at various stages in the writing process, from completed and partially orchestrated to sketched through but without a final form.

And so began an ongoing process of musicological speculation, instigated by Mahler’s widow Alma, that initially involved such composers as Ernst Krenek and Alban Berg, who worked to clarify the draft material. Many hands added their own edits, including conductors Willem Mengelberg and Franz Schalk, who directed early performances of the Adagio and Purgatorio movements.

The first completion was made by Clinton Carpenter, but Deryck Cooke produced the most generally accepted version of seven completions (to date), and this is the one Rattle used. Alma at first vetoed this version, but after subsequent revisions by Cooke gave it her stamp of approval. Rattle has led the Cooke version over a hundred times by his count, easily more than any other conductor.

The value of Cooke’s work varies depending on one’s taste and philosophical outlook. Those range from the desire to know and cherish every one of Mahler’s musical ideas, to the feeling that well enough should be left alone (Leonard Bernstein’s sentiment).

In Monday night’s concert, the London Symphony played the Adagio with great care and determined commitment. There was a sense of serious focus emanating from the orchestra, and a feeling of utmost respect in every phrase—they were clearly playing this music as beautifully and expressively as they could.

This orchestra has never had the kind of Mahler sound one can hear from the New York  Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, or Czech Philharmonic—a complex blending of instruments, and a versatility with color and timbre that comes out of older traditions and a long-term commitment to the music. That didn’t elide their virtues however. The violas played the opening lines with a throaty, singing quality, and the quiet in which the orchestra held the most before the anguished climactic moment produced tremendous tension.

Specific techniques, like one trumpet seamlessly taking over a long, sustained pitch, from another were perfect, and the whole group played with an exact control of minute variations in dynamics—one of Rattle’s calling cards—that was outstanding and highly expressive.

And so the Adagio was stirring and enveloping, one was in Mahler’s world. After that, one experienced short passages of Mahler but mostly Cooke’s editing and orchestration. Even with advocacy on this supreme level, Cooke’s orchestration came off as staid and dull, even bizarre at times. This simply wasn’t Mahler, and could not be—Mahler orchestrated as no other composer ever has, and that is an essential element not only to the unique sound of his music but also to the means of expression.

With the LSO’s modern sound, the concert was the only thing it could have been, one Mahler movement and then an extended lecture-demonstration on Mahler’s first thoughts for the rest of the symphony. One did hear the persistence of ideas from Symphonies 7 and 9, which on their own strongly indicate that he was settling into what could have been a mid-period style. But one also knew this was ultimately speculation, and that after the Adagio the composer was merely an intermittent ghostly presence in the hall.

Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra play Mozart, Haydn, and J.C. Bach, 7:30 p.m., May 19 lincolncenter.org


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