Sinfonia da Requiem & Mahler 10

Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
Symphony No.10 [Performing Version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews]

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

When Benjamin Britten completed his Sinfonia da Requiem in 1940, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was known as an unfinished work that would probably remain so. Mahler’s widow, Alma, had published her husband’s manuscript in 1924 with only the symphony’s opening Adagio and third-movement ‘Purgatorio’ able to be played (as prepared by Ernst Krenek) with the Adagio (more or less finished by Mahler) becoming established as a substantial torso. Composers, including Krenek, declined invitations to ‘complete’ the work.

Although Joseph Wheeler (1927-77) made the first attempt (in the 1950s) to bring the whole work into the open, it was Deryck Cooke’s first ‘Performing Version’ that garnered currency, first through a BBC radio broadcast of a mostly-complete edition and then at the Proms on 13 August 1964 when Cooke, assisted by Berthold Goldschmidt (who conducted), had been able to fill in all the spaces left by Mahler when he died in 1911. It should be noted that Mahler’s draft is complete (in an A-to-Z sense) albeit often very sketchy if sometimes with indications of scoring.

Following the Goldschmidt-conducted Proms premiere, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the first US performance of Mahler 10 (closely followed by Jean Martinon in Chicago) and recorded it. Cooke, now joined by Colin and David Matthews, prepared a second ‘Performing Version’ (published in 1976 having previously been recorded by Wyn Morris). Meanwhile Wheeler’s attempt had also been played (and can now be found on Naxos) and, 30 and more years on, others have made their own versions – Clinton Carpenter, Remo Mazzetti (twice) and Rudolf Barshai – yet Cooke remains the most satisfying because he was able to do just enough to make the music performable (others have been more speculative as to what Mahler might have done) and while Mahler would have undoubtedly thoroughly revised his complete draft, Cooke and his team produced something based on Mahler’s own devices, as notated, indicated and from the near-complete opening Adagio.

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, through Cooke’s devoted attention, has claims to be his greatest work, the last of the five movements achieving a calmed resignation and ‘love-death’ transcendentalism (am I alone in finding the very final bars referencing to the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, music that Mahler conducted?). This finale also includes a melody of quite remarkable and haunting beauty assigned to the flute and played here with plangent expression by the BBC Philharmonic’s Richard Davis (briefly competing with the scourge of a ringing mobile phone!).

Gianandrea Noseda led an inconsistent account of Mahler 10, the BBC Philharmonic’s dedicated playing sometimes lacking precision and security yet certainly sensitive and with some exposed solos very finely executed. The outer movements were spaciously conceived, albeit the opening Adagio, following an especially veiled and mysterious entrée from the violas, was almost too valedictory and the strings needed more weight of sound. The pair of scherzos (movements two and four) find Mahler looking forward (especially in the metrically complex first one); here Noseda was rather cautious with the music’s linearity (although the elaborate counterpoint was meticulously revealed) and underplayed the macabre aspects in the second one. Noseda, as far as I know, did not make any emendations to Cooke’s scoring (some conductors have) – by the way, David Matthews was in the Arena, score in hand – and certainly dug emotionally deep as the codas of the outer movements were reached; in the finale, the bass drum strokes were appropriately hollow and threatening.

This followed a disappointing account of Sinfonia da Requiem (commissioned in 1939 and then rejected by the Japanese Government because of the work’s perceived Catholic connections – Britten entitles the three movements ‘Lacrymosa’, ‘Dies irae’ and ‘Requiem aeternam’ – and the piece is dedicated by Britten to his deceased parents). Noseda rather pushed through the three movements but without enough upheaval, danger or resolution, and the playing wasn’t always precise enough. First heard in New York in 1941, conducted by Barbirolli, Basil Cameron led the European premiere in 1942 – at the Proms.

It was surprising in these Mahler-saturated days (or maybe because of the composer’s over-exposure) that a bigger audience didn’t show for this Prom. Maybe some still don’t approve that Symphony 10 can now be played (some distinguished Mahler-conductors have eschewed it) or are put-off by the music’s relative sparseness, transparency and lack of subjectivity – quite a few people left after the Adagio and still more later! – yet, musically, there is so much to admire and be absorbed and fascinated by as well as being an intriguing indication of where Mahler might have been destined as a composer.

It says much for Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers that what we have seems ‘enough’ and while this particular performance was not the last word it certainly left no doubt as to Mahler’s final achievement in terms of vision, substance and emotional communication. If the box-office might have taken a bit of a bashing, the upside was that this audience didn’t intrude with between-movement applause although a clinking wineglass did spoil the very final bars, which were otherwise most eloquently brought off. This is not music requiring a picnic!

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