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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Concert Review: Too Many Cookes

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the completed Mahler Tenth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Simon Rattle at study.
Photo by Monika Rittershaus for EMI Classics/WBC. 
When Gustav Mahler died on May 18, 1911, he left behind five folders of musical sketch material. There were two completed movements and three of four-stave sketches: the bones of his unfinished Symphony No. 10. On Monday night, in the concluding performance of a three-movement series, Sir Simon Rattle and his London Symphony Orchestra gave their first New York performance together of this still controversial work, in a five-movement performing edition created in 1960 by musicologist Deryck Cooke.



Sir Simon has enjoyed a long association with the Cooke version of the Mahler 10, performing the musicologist's revised version from 1976. Early in his career, he made a point of conducting it regularly, and even made two valuable recordings of the work when he was under a contract at EMI. However, Monday night's performance, which followed on the heels of Friday and Sunday readings of works that Mahler actually lived to complete, showed the flaws and cracks in this completed work.

Those flaws were not so apparent in the first movement, a thirty-minute Adagio that was completed and orchestrated by Mahler, although the written music was never revised. (Conductors who have refused to play the completed Mahler Tenth will often place this movement on concert programs and include it in complete recordings of the symphonies.) Sir Simon took an ultra-languid approach to this gently rolling movement, generating a sea of sound that seemed to crash and break in slow motion. The movement climbed to its height, a searing, nine-note chord that showed the composer exploring some of the multi-tonal territory that he first set foot in in his Seventh.

The cracks started to show in the second movement, the first of two Scherzos. This started with an insistent ostinato in the brass, which was picked up by the strings and became a hammering figure in the strings, a study in shadowy obsession. And yet as this long movement deked into a chamber-like section for strings, the music seemed curiously drab. The chirping brass theme returned, more aggressive than in its first appearance. The harsh chords echo the crie de couer chord from the opening movement.

The third movement (also almost completed and fully orchestrated by Mahler) is the smallest and most mysterious movement of the five. Labeled Purgatorio, it is a throwback to the pastoral wind melodies and quirky bird calls of the early Wunderhorn symphonies. The twittering oboe and flute create a sense of optimism that is crushed by the low strings. Then it veers into a wild dance for brass and strings, the sound of a composer struggling to create even as the odds lengthened.

Mahler would lose this race against time. He came down with a disease related to his heart connection, traveled back to Europe from New York and succumbed to pneumonia. His last musical thoughts are in the fourth and fifth movement, but these two lengthy movements: a second, shattering Scherzo and a closing Adagio are second-rate, at least as completed through the efforts of Deryck Cooke. They are joined by a jarring effect: a series of muffled offstage  stroke on the bass drum.

Following that inspired moment, the movement starts slowly with mutterings on the contrabassoon. This leads to a jarring ride, a movement that keeps shifting in tempo and mood. Cooke is firmly in command here, incorporating snatches of ideas from the early movement to create a herky-jerky experience for the listener. However, while Mahler's finished final movements (with the exception of the Sixth) have the power to (however briefly)  transfigure the listener, this music does not. For the exploring Mahlerian, a live performance of the Tenth is an invaluable experience, but Monday's performance never reached that desired transcendental state.

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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.