Can we really claim that there is a Mahler Ten? Opinions remain sharply divided among the most fervent Mahlerians. Some refuse to consider the proposition of performing even the first movement of the composer's final, unfinished symphony – let alone any of the various attempts to construct a performable whole using the extensive sketches Mahler left behind at his death in 1911.
Thomas Dausgaard decidedly favours the "pro-Mahler Ten" camp, and he put this conviction to the test in last weekend's concerts with the Seattle Symphony, marking the first time in its history that the orchestra has played the Tenth. Wisely, no additional "filler" piece was added, and attention could be focused squarely on the roughly 75-minute work in five movements.
In the process Dausgaard, the SSO's Principal Guest Conductor, inspired the musicians to sustain a high level of emotionally charged and technically refined playing throughout. They performed what has become the default choice for Mahler Ten: the revised version prepared by the celebrated musicologist (and Wagner expert) Deryck Cooke. The performances were dedicated to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut.
There was much indeed to admire, from the corporate coherence of the strings – despite its vast ensemble, the Tenth at times resembles a symphony for string orchestra – to the sterling solo contributions from the flute (Jeffrey Barker), oboe (Mary Lynch), horn (Jeff Fair) and trumpet (David Gordon). With confidence the SSO negotiated the exceedingly tricky changing meters of the first scherzo as well as the sudden gear-shifts of dynamics throughout the score.
Dausgaard is clearly a conductor who knows precisely the sonorities he's after – and who knows how to motivate the musicians to reliably produce them. Countless details emerged to make their impression: the subtle attacks on appoggiaturas, the warm blend of strings and horns (so markedly contrasting with the spareness of numerous passages), the vibrant lilt of those all-important dance rhythms in the middle movements. And Dausgaard showed a command of structural relationships that clarified overarching dialectical tensions: between elegy and passion, retrospective nostalgia and forward-moving animation, all of this unpredictably interrupted by some of the most enigmatic ideas to be found in Mahler.
The challenges are formidable for players and conductor alike, requiring constant interpretation and nuance. The once-ubiquitous pairing of Mahler with Bruckner (based on the ridiculous comparison of "big symphonies") has thankfully lost currency. Still, curiously, several spots in the Cooke/Mahler Tenth are a tad reminiscent of Bruckner in that they call to mind the latter's discernible "building blocks" and use of pauses to move on to a new idea.
Yet this stop-and-start aspect to the Tenth is the result of the work's unfinished state. In the end, Cooke had to resort to fleshing out material that's a far cry from Mahler's advanced craft in his finished symphonies. Even with Dausgaard and the SSO operating at such a high level of musicianship, I failed to be convinced of the coherence of the musical thought for long stretches.
In his wonderfully idiosyncratic fashion, Mahler understood composition as what Wagner famously called "the art of transition" – and much of that is by necessity missing here. Moreover, particularly in Cooke's orchestration, several passages come uncomfortably close to pastiche Mahler: a wisp of the "detuned" fiddle in the scherzo of the Fourth, a rocky landscape of lower brass from the Third.
The powerful bass drum thwacks at the beginning of the final movement, on the other hand, not only revisit the aura of stifled gloom from the Sixth but suggest a strange, untethered new world. This intimation of something new is, in the end, the real justification for presenting what Mahler was contemplating musically at the end of his life, unfinished though it remained.
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