Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (performing version by Deryck Cooke). Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor). (Seattle Symphony Media SSM1011)
By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW — By now, one would think that Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s entire Symphony No. 10 would no longer be controversial. But it still is, as are the other competing versions floating around.
Of the roughly 28 “complete” Mahler symphony cycles on recordings, only those by Riccardo Chailly, Michael Gielen, Eliahu Inbal, Simon Rattle, and David Zinman include an entire Tenth. Almost everyone else stops after the opening Adagio movement, the only one they deem to have been substantially completed by the composer.
Mahler champion Leonard Bernstein wouldn’t touch the entire Tenth for reasons that sound superstitious. Only after reconsidering did he record the Adagio, and that was many years after he made his first set of the Symphonies 1 through 9. Pierre Boulez, who recorded almost every note of orchestral Mahler, went out of his way to declare the whole Tenth off limits, also limiting himself to the Adagio. Carlo Maria Giulini once told me that the completed Tenth was “not Mahler,” without elaborating. Although Georg Solti didn’t even record the Adagio, he wrote in his memoirs that he intended to make his own composite performing version of the whole Tenth in 1999, but died two years before he could get to it. Even most younger Mahler advocates like Gustavo Dudamel, who ought to be free from encrusted conventional wisdom, continue to avoid the whole Tenth.
But Thomas Dausgaard, the principal guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony, does believe in it fiercely, passionately. He makes that very clear in his liner notes to a new Seattle recording of the Cooke version of the Tenth, attaching autobiographical freight to the score by focusing upon the love letter Walter Gropius wrote to Mahler’s wife Alma that was “mistakenly” addressed to the composer. All of this is hothouse speculation, but the practical result is a thoroughly committed, super-charged performance, recorded live in November 2015.
Dausgaard seems to be dramatizing in his music-making what he perceives the Tenth to be about in his liner notes. The tempo changes are impulsive, with sudden bursts of acceleration, and, in general, they are freer and faster than those on most of the other recordings out there. It is as if Dausgaard is suggesting the instability of Mahler’s emotional state in 1910, yet there is nothing fragmented about the performance; he manages to keep the piece’s overall structure together.
There are plenty of portamentos (gliding from one tone to the next, with rapid slurring of the notes in between) in the strings during the Adagio, with that massive, dissonant, shrieking climactic chord sounding even more horrifying than usual. Dausgaard speculates that this could be Mahler opening and reading the Gropius letter, or that it is perhaps a primal scream as a result of his session with Sigmund Freud. (I like to think that it is Mahler peering into the abyss of atonality in the 20th century and stepping back in fright.)
The unsettling bursts of wild tempo changes continue throughout the symphony. The second movement, with its brass riffs that presage Hindemith, rumbles along with a strong rhythm, concluding in a really rambunctious coda. The tiny Purgatorio is far more emotional and tragic in its denouement than in many a recording, and there is nothing inhibited about the turbulence of the fourth movement, which has a whopper of a sharp concluding bass drum stroke; the instrument sounds as if it is ten feet in diameter (watch the volume control on your system!). The tenderness of the romantic themes of the finale is achieved without schmaltz or dragging the tempo, and Seattle’s first trumpeter is able to hold the sustaining note in the return of the shrieking chord to an eternity.
Overall, Dausgaard has turned in the most passionate Mahler-Cooke Tenth I’ve heard since Eugene Ormandy’s premiere recording from 1965 – even surpassing the admittedly better-played Rattle recordings from Bournemouth and Berlin – and the disc is also the best issue on the Seattle Symphony’s in-house label to date. On the CD, the sound could be clearer, the huge bass drum strokes notwithstanding. Nevertheless, this Tenth makes most of the others seem timid.
Of the other performing editions, the overly elaborate Clinton Carpenter version has a persuasive advocate in Andrew Litton (Delos), the Remo Mazzetti edition is best served by Jesus Lopez-Cobos (Telarc), Joe Wheeler’s skeletal version has been done decently by Robert Olson (Naxos), and Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant Classics) made his own edition that in its way is just as convincing as Cooke’s. No matter how these editors went about their business, in each version the Mahler Tenth remains essentially the same continuous piece from the first note to the last, and that in itself is a justification for not missing out on one of the greatest unfinished symphonies of all.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.