Mahler 10/Gielen

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.10 [Performing Version by Deryck Cooke]

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Recorded 17-19 March 2005 in the Konzerthaus, Freiburg

Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: July 2006
Duration: 77 minutes

I have two small gripes with this release, neither of them musical. The first is that it came out too late to be included in Michael Gielen’s otherwise “complete” boxed set of Mahler symphonies (if one forgets “Das Lied von der Erde”), a puzzling omission; the second is that, fitting one CD, Gielen’s account of the Tenth Symphony has no need for the imaginative and often inspired fillers which he used to contextualise and expand upon the other works in the series.

So, no Schoenberg, Ives or Kurtág here – a great shame. On the other hand, Mahler never wrote anything quite as forward-looking as his unfinished Tenth, and Gielen’s credentials as a modernist serve the piece exceedingly well: never has the opening Andante-Adagio sounded so much like it has been ripped from the equally unfinished score of Berg’s “Lulu”. Here, Gielen takes care in teasing out a horn line that cuts at right-angles across the underlying harmony, terminating in a dangerous collision of perfect fourths and tri-tones. He does not give as much space as some – or indeed volume – to the nine-note pile-up at the movement’s climax, instead approaching it without trepidation, as if it were the inevitable next step in a difficult, but necessary, journey. It is as if Mahler had reached a forbidding precipice and found himself with no choice but to take the plunge; it is rather touching that, having done so, he then finds his way back to firmer, more comforting terrain.

Gielen charts the progress of this journey wonderfully, but the Andante-Adagio (which Gielen has previously recorded: this complete ‘10’ includes a re-made first movement) has been covered a great many more times than the rest of the work, whose various ‘completions’ have still not won over the hardiest of Mahler purists. The real strength of this recording is the way in which Gielen manages to tie the complete symphony – or rather, Deryck Cooke’s ‘performing version’ of it (mostly the second one, with Gielen retaining some aspects of Cooke’s first, it seems) – together so convincingly.

Mahler was trying out something rather new here, and it admittedly didn’t all work: the first scherzo, for instance, has a metre that changes with as much regularity as Stravinsky’s ‘danse sacrale’, but is clothed in harmonies of a far less radical bent; while the second scherzo mixes some impressive aural violence with a rather more sedate, Ländler-inspired lyricism. The results are at times decidedly mixed.

But Gielen – who can make Schubert and Webern sound like convivial bedfellows – excels at such challenges and, like the rest of his cycle, his Tenth is a perfect marriage of the sentimental and the cerebral. He makes the maudlin sound modern, the thorny sound thoughtful: his use of ultra-traditional string portamentos sounds not a million miles away from Lutosławski. Most importantly, he gets the finale just right, neither over-sentimentalising it nor underplaying its stark, tragic beauty: it is a natural extension of the first movement’s angst wanderings, tempered by a sense of calm acceptance. The wilting, deceptively simple flute solo that supplies the movement’s main theme is as lovely a passage as you will hear.

Of currently available recordings, only Kurt Sanderling on Berlin Classics provides any real competition to Gielen’s account, although anyone with an interest in this symphony is encouraged to track down a live performance by Mark Wigglesworth released some years ago on the cover of “BBC Music Magazine”. In the meantime, Gielen’s is a deeply rewarding disc that should be in the collection of any serious Mahler lover.

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