Mahler: Symphony No. 10 - Vänskä
BIS BIS 2396
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (performing version by Deryck Cooke)
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Left unfinished at the death of the composer, Gustav Mahler's Tenth Symphony has exerted an enormous fascination on musicologists as well as musicians – a kind of Holy Grail of 20th-century music. Recognized as an intensely personal work, it was initially consigned to respectful oblivion, but over the years, Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow, released more and more of Mahler’s sketches for publication, and gradually it became clear that he had in fact bequeathed an entire five-movement symphony in short score (i.e. written on three or four staves). Of this, nearly half had reached the stage of a draft orchestration, while the rest contained indications of the intended instrumentation. Over the years a number of different completions or performing versions of ‘the Tenth’ have seen the light of day. One of the most often performed and recorded of these is that by Deryck Cooke. Cooke himself insisted that his edition was not a ‘completion’ of the work, but rather a functional presentation of the materials as Mahler left them. Cooke’s performing version of the symphony is the one that Osmo Vanska has chosen to use for the seventh installment in his and the Minnesota Orchestra’s Mahler series, a cycle characterized by an unusual transparency and clarity of sound as well as musical conception.
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Review by Graham Williams - February 15, 2021
Osmo Vänskä’s probing survey of the Mahler Symphonies that began three years ago continues with this eagerly anticipated release of the Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at the composer’s death. It was in 1960, the centenary of Mahler’s birth, that Deryck Cooke began a detailed examination of Mahler’s sketches and eventually produced a ‘performing version’ of the score in 1964. Further revisions were made to this version by Cooke, in 1972 and 1976, aided by composer brothers Colin and David Matthews. In 1989 thirteen years after Cooke’s death a final revision was published and this is what is used for Vänskä’s recording.
Over the years there have been many others who have produced ‘completions’ of the Symphony with varying success. These include Joseph Wheeler, Remo Mazzetti, Rudolf Barshai and Clinton Carpenter (all available on disc), but it is Cooke’s that has been favoured by most conductors and rightly regarded as the most objective and least interventionist attempt to bring Mahler’s work to the concert hall.
Those familiar with some or all of the previous six issues in Vänskä’s Mahler survey (unfortunately due to the pandemic, it is too soon yet to call it a cycle as the 3rd, 8th and 9th symphonies are yet to be recorded) will know that objectivity is a key aspect in Vänskä’s interpretative style. Not for him the naked emotional angst of some lauded Mahler exponents, but rather a more nuanced restraint that keeps emotion in balance with the composer’s symphonic structures. The conductor’s approach manifests itself in the opening movement where the sinuous recitative, beautifully articulated by the violas of the Minnesota Orchestra, steals in imperceptibly from silence. Vänskä’s very measured account of this long movement certainly impresses through his skill in sustaining interest thanks to his ability to hold a firm grip on the melodic line and rhythmic pulse. As so often with Vänskä interpretations the dynamic range employed is extremely wide; hushed pianissimos, sometimes verging on the limit of audibility, contrasting with huge fortissimos such as those heard at the terrifyingly dissonant climaxes of this movement and also their reappearance in the finale.
Vänskä’s vividly pungent accounts of the three movements that follow are a masterclass in focused direction. His fine ear for orchestral sonority illuminates many elements of the scoring with an unerring confidence that he communicates to his musicians. The first scherzo is notable Mahler’s use of varied meter that is constantly in flux, but the superbly drilled musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra negotiate this tricky movement with absolute security making light of its not inconsiderable technical difficulties. The conductor’s subtle use of rubato permeates the second scherzo in which the references to the first movement of ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ are made clear as well as other telling insights, illuminated once again by virtuoso orchestral playing, in this anguished dance with the devil.
The arresting bass drum thuds at the start of the finale are perhaps louder than those suggested in the score but certainly convey the sense of foreboding and Vänskä does not delay in reaching the serene flute melody, played here with entrancing purity. As the movement unfolds he and his wonderful orchestra release the full emotional and ecstatic yearning of the music with a passionate intensity and warmth that will surprise many, while the closing pages are delivered with a poignant and ineffable sweetness.
Thanks to their familiarity with the acoustic of Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, the BIS recording team, producer Robert Suff and engineer Matthias Spitzbarth, have achieved a recording of remarkable clarity with a beautifully judged balance between detail and generous hall ambience on this 5.0 multi-channel SACD, aided no doubt by the antiphonal seating of the violins in the manner Mahler would have expected. Jeremy Barham’s excellent liner notes provide a fascinating account of the work’s genesis as well as many helpful musical pointers to listeners.
It is now over sixty years ago since Deryck Cooke wrote:
“I am convinced that my apparently presumptuous undertaking will prove justified; that these last two movements, though slightly touched up and entirely orchestrated by another hand, will reveal themselves as among Mahler’s finest conceptions; and that it will be realised for the first time that the Tenth Symphony, far from being a pathetic, fragmentary product of failing powers, is the near- realisation of a final, spiritually victorious masterpiece.”
No one listening to Osmo Vänskä’s deeply considered and superbly performed account of this work, delivered in vivid high resolution sound, could doubt that it totally vindicates Cooke’s self-effacing undertaking.
A must for all Mahlerites and unreservedly recommended.
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