MAHLER Symphony No 10 – Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle previously recorded Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's incomplete Tenth in June 1980. He was not the first to do so. Eugene Ormandy taped an earlier, more tentative edition of the text in the 1960s (CBS, 6/66 - nla), and it was Wyn Morris's New Philharmonia LPs (Philips, 3/74 - nla) that unlocked the emotive force of the finale by the simple expedient of taking it at a more deliberate tempo. Rattle came in third, but the passionate sensitivity of his reading helped win over a sceptical public at a time when we were much less keen to tamper with the unfinished works of dead or dying artists. These days, it's almost as if we see in their unresolved tensions some prophetic vision of the life to come; Rattle's success looks to have been replicated by Paul Daniel's (second) commercial recording of Anthony Payne's speculative Elgar 3 (Naxos, 3/99). In truth, the hysterical edge of Bournemouth's Mahler will have owed something to the discomfiture of the players in what is, in every sense, a difficult score, although this is absolutely in keeping with the manuscript's scrawled invocation to unfaithful Alma: 'Fur dich leben! fur dich sterben!' ('To live for you! To die for you!').
Over the years, Rattle has performed the work nearly 100 times, far more often than anyone else. Wooed by Berlin, he repeatedly offered them 'Mahler ed Cooke' and was repulsed. He made his Berlin conducting debut with the Sixth. But, after the announcement last June that he had won the orchestra's vote in a head-to-head with Daniel Barenboim, he celebrated with two concert performances of the Tenth. It's a composite version that is presented here. Had the musicians ever played movements two to five? I doubt it, and it seldom matters: they have been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives even if the exhaustingly high writing for the trumpets is not quite without flaw and the brass can obtrude more cussedly than intended. As always, Rattle obtains some devastatingly quiet string playing, and technical standards are unprecedentedly high in so far as the revised performing version is concerned. Indeed, the danger that clinical precision will result in expressive coolness is not immediately dispelled by the self-confident meatiness of the violas at the start. We are not used to hearing the line immaculately tuned with every accent clearly defined. The tempo is broader than before and, despite Rattle's characteristic determination to articulate every detail, the mood is, at first, comparatively serene, even Olympian. Could Rattle be succumbing to the Karajan effect? But no - somehow he squares the circle. The neurotic trills, jabbing dissonances and tortuous counterpoint are relished as never before, within the context of a schizoid Adagio in which the Brucknerian string writing is never undersold.
The conductor has not radically changed his approach to the rest of the work. As you might expect, the scherzos have greater security and verve. Their strange hallucinatory choppiness is better served, although parts of the fourth movement remain perplexing despite the superb crispness and clarity of inner parts. Rattle allows himself some satiric palm-court stylization hereabouts, also pointing the parallels with the 'Trinklied' from Das Lied. More than ever, everything leads inexorably to the cathartic finale, brought off with a searing intensity that has you forgetting the relative baldness of the invention. The Berlin flautist floats his tone even more poignantly in the principal theme (from bar 29, 2'14''), while an older, wiser, albeit more self-conscious maestro, painstakingly avoids sentimentality and gets a real ppp for the entry of the strings - breathtaking stuff. Several conductors (Mark Wigglesworth is one) now impose a long glissando on the upward thrust of the heart-wrenching sigh that concludes the work; Rattle has no truck with this.
But then the Tenth is a work in progress in which the conductor has every right to innovate. With Berthold Goldschmidt's encouragement, some of Rattle's departures were signalled last time. In the first movement, he reallocates Cooke's bassoon line to a Nelson Riddle-ish bass clarinet (from bar 162, 14'37'') ; he enlivens the denouement of the first Scherzo with a cymbal clash (this revision got into the 1989 edition of the printed score), and he cuts out a drum stroke to pass seamlessly from the fourth to the fifth movement. In the finale, he still disagrees with Cooke, opting to reinforce the return of the Adagio's dissonant 'break-down' chords. At least the more obstreperous percussion has gone, leaving the low rumble of drums to underpin rather than obscure the harmony. There are other gains. The subtlety of the orchestral response allows more scope for special effects. Sample the gloriously scored, spaced-out cadence that concludes the Adagio. Or the achingly beautiful treatment of the episode marked A tempo aber sehr ruhig in the second scherzo (from bar 291, 5'32''). The woodwind playing in the Purgatorio is of a similarly exalted standard.
I had qualms about the recording quality, given that Rattle's live Viennese Ninth (EMI, 8/98) is by no means an easy listen. Nor is Berlin's fabulous Philharmonie the easiest venue: with everything miked close, climaxes can turn oppressive. In fact, the results here are very credible and offer no grounds for hesitation. What of the alternatives? Leonard Slatkin's CD, the first generally available commercial recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony to use an edition other than Deryck Cooke's, is uncompetitive for that very reason, although, like Riccardo Chailly's, it represents a genuine attempt to engage with what Tony Benn would call the 'ishoos'. Chailly's own, eminently lucid account, deploying a sympathetic orchestral layout in the lustrous acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, has perhaps been underrated. That said, comparisons are pretty much beside the point when Rattle's new version sweeps the board even more convincingly than the old. According to press reports of the first night, the conductor was called back and accorded two Karajan-style standing ovations after the orchestra had left the stage. There is no applause here, but it is not difficult to imagine such a scene. Rattle makes the strongest possible case for an astonishing piece of revivification that only the most die-hard purists will resist. Strongly recommended.'