Simon Rattle ended his traversal of Mahler’s late symphonic works by returning to the piece he has championed for over four decades, during which time the Tenth Symphony – heard in Deryck Cooke’s performing version – has established itself firmly within the Mahler canon.
If Cooke’s realisation has been questioned as to its circumspection, there was no holding back in Rattle’s approach – not least with an opening Adagio as demonstrative as the comparable movement of the Ninth; its shifting levels of starkness, pathos and capriciousness vividly but not insensitively projected. The anguished climax sounded a little too calculated (through no fault of Philip Cobb’s fearless trumpet-playing), then the coda was eloquently rendered at a spacious tempo during which the diaphanous shading of the LSO strings came into its own.
The central movements proved a curate’s egg of insight and affectation – not least in the first Scherzo, where Rattle’s snatching at phrasing tended to undermine continuity over the whole. Yet an air of nonchalance was never in doubt, setting up purposeful contrast with the central ‘Purgatorio’ – its brevity belied by its fulcrum-like role in the overall design. Rattle despatched it with a sure sense of that “dancing on a volcano” as carried over into the second Scherzo, whose vaunting between desperation and elation was never downplayed. That said, this movement’s unfolding could have been even more impulsive – not least in the arresting concluding pages, the music reduced to rhythmic essentials as the texture fragments to nothingness in preparation for those fateful drum-strokes such as permeate the opening bars of the Finale.
The latter were delivered by a bass drum positioned offstage in the central cavity above the Barbican stage, a viable musical and effective visual conceit out of which the flute emerged with one of Mahler’s keenest melodic inspirations. The fateful return to the opening music, however, was less than heart-stopping; then momentum was only fitfully maintained across the eventful central span – at least until a main climax that Rattle still (rightfully) underlines with extra percussion and which duly emerged as the emotional lynchpin of the work. The movement continued in terms that, while not ideally rapt, sustained its soulfulness on to a fervent culmination and serene close. Passing fallibility in execution at least reinforced the sense of a performance whose essential interpretative ‘give’ had not been wholly removed.
Rattle paired the Mahler with Michael Tippett’s The Rose Lake (completed in 1993) on the basis of their both evincing a transcendence as comes only with the wisdom of ‘last things’, a ruse wholly justified by the excellence of the latter piece as it emerged here. Written in Tippett’s late-eighties, its sequence of short if not self-contained episodes might easily sound piecemeal and unfulfilled, but Rattle was mindful to underline motivic and textural connections as to ensure a cumulative build-up to that mesmeric evocation of the lake heard “in full song”; after which the music obliquely retraces its steps towards the most recondite of endings. A superb response from the LSO, not least the percussion with its defining role for rototoms, fairly set the seal on a reading that reaffirmed Tippett’s ultimate work as a defining one of the late-twentieth-century.