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Friday, December 2, 2011

Concert Review: Mahler's Last Words

Daniel Harding conducts the (completed) Mahler 10th.
Former New York Philharmonic music director Gustav Mahler,
 on his last voyage from New York to France. 1911.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

When Gustav Mahler died in 1911, he had completed his second season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a post he took in 1909. He was also in the middle of working on his Tenth Symphony, a five-movement instrumental work built on a vast scale. At the time of his death, the first movement was completed. The remaining four were only sketched.

It was the unenviable task of British musicologist Deryck Cooke to complete the final four movements of this vast, mysterious symphony. But despite the hard work of Cooke and other composers and musicologists who have built "performing versions" of the Tenth, the work has never caught on. Many conductors refuse to play anything but the opening Adagio. In fact, the New York Philharmonic, Mahler's orchestra, had not presented a complete Tenth since 1984. 

For these concerts, the Philharmonic was led by Daniel Harding, the young British conductor who is revealing himself to be a Mahlerian of taste and power. He is a protégé of Sir Simon Rattle, who has championed the Tenth and recorded the work twice. At the Friday morning performance, Mr. Harding took the opening Adagio very slowly, drawing out the profound theme for horns and cellos, massaging the rich textures of this long, percussion-free movement. 

The second subject of the Adagio is a serpentine minor-key theme referencing Wagner's Parsifal. It is the sound of heartbreak. Mahler's own heart trouble was well known--he depicted his failing heart in the arhythmatic opening of the Ninth. His condition was aggravated while composing the Tenth, when he learned that his wife, Alma, was having an affair with architect Walter Gropius. 

The atmosphere of herzeleid permeates the three central movements: two Scherzos and a central Adagietto, labeled "Purgatorio" by the composer. They veer wildly in style, encompassing an Austrian Ländler, a Strauss waltz and (at least) three quotes from Wagner operas. All these self-references form a kind of musical autobiography: the sound of the dying composer looking back on his career.

For the lengthy Finale, Mahler opens with a muffled thud, a sound familiar from the finale of his Sixth. But this time, it is the sound of a funeral drum, inspired by a street parade mourning a fallen New York City fireman. The drum's solemn sound keeps interrupting the development of the main theme, which starts in the tubas and trombones, moving up through the brass section until the woodwinds take it over. 

The Philharmonic brass players were at their best here, coping with difficult, high horn solos and a long, shrill pedal-point played on the trumpet that sliced neatly through the fabric of the music. Eventually the emotional crisis resolves itself with a long slow coda. It ends, not with transcendent bliss but steadfast resolution. Mr. Harding's sweeping, emotional reading transcended this work's negative reputation. It left the listener to wonder what the  Eleventh would have sounded like. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.