Indulging in musical might-have-beens is a recurring temptation. Or, as William Hazlitt once put it, “If the world were good for nothing else, it is a fine subject for speculation.” What would a four-movement version of Schubert’s B minor symphony look like? What if Mahler had completed his Tenth and written an Eleventh or indeed a Twelfth? Or, while we’re on the subject of Gustav, what would have happened to the course of late 19th-century symphonic music, if the man he cribbed so many ideas from, one Hans Rott, hadn’t died in a cloud of insanity at the age of 25? And so on, and so forth.

Thomas Dausgaard © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard
© Per Morten Abrahamsen

Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth is a curious thing. It packs many of the composer’s quintessential sounds into a duration of 75 minutes and suggests how he was still developing as an artist, but no live performance I have ever heard has persuaded me that the five movements add up to a coherent whole. One has to wonder why everybody Alma approached with the request to complete Gustav’s sketches – and the big names included Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Křenek and Shostakovich –  declined the offer. It didn’t help that she herself was given to handing out pages of what had originally been written as thank-you gifts. Even Thomas Dausgaard, who has recently recorded the work in Seattle, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, though generally fine advocates of the piece, didn’t unlock all the expressiveness needed to make the work glow from within.

In the opening movement, Dausgaard emphasised the twitchiness and spasmodic nature of the thematic material, injecting elements of vitality into the phrasing and treating it less as the great symphonic Adagio it is declared to be and more as a phantasmagoria with ghostly echoes from earlier works. The strings had frequent opportunities to demonstrate their agility and flexibility as the musical ground cracked and groaned under the pressures of tonal disintegration. No other composer has personal biography so closely interwoven in the music he wrote, and this work has to be seen against the background of a great betrayal. When those terrifying fff shrieks come after moments of tenderness from hushed strings, Mahler builds in the key of A (after passing through the dark key of A flat minor) the most dissonant chord he ever conceived, almost certainly a reference to his anguish at Alma’s adultery. Though the fierce trumpet sound had a slightly tremulous quality, as if to underline the personal despair, an even bigger shock to the system was needed.

There was an immediate contrast in the bucolic and rustic qualities of the first of the two scherzos. Listening to the angularity Dausgaard found in the material pointed up the similarities with much of what Hindemith was writing a few decades later. One of the great musical ironies is that the third movement, entitled Purgatorio, lasts for only four minutes and includes arguably the most hummable tune in the entire symphony. What was missing from the fourth movement was a sense of the blade being twisted in the breast, “the devil dancing with me”, as Mahler himself wrote. There was much highlighting of orchestral colour from Dausgaard, but too little Weltschmerz. The finale had a wonderfully atmospheric opening, with mere flecks of sound from the brass set against the deadening thwacks from the bass drum, but when those grinding dissonances reappeared that vital last ounce of intensity was lacking. How marvellous though that right at the end Dausgaard’s hands remained aloft for almost a minute, an excellent way of forestalling the immediate rush of applause which after a work like this prevents the music from resonating in the mind.

In the first half Dausgaard conducted a nervous and excitable view of Schubert’s Unfinished, a welcome change from the way so many conductors now see it as an excuse for dirge and lamentation. There was much to admire in the playing: a sepulchral start from the six basses, the bright and incisive violins, antiphonally placed, a finely voiced clarinet solo, then echoed by oboe and flute, in the second movement, and at its close whispering ethereal strings sounding like the final exhalations of breath.

However, if the reading was in one sense refreshing, it wasn’t very Viennese. Notes in the first movement were not always given their full value and at Dausgaard’s brisk tempo the climax didn’t quite build properly. In the Andante con moto some of the violin figurations had a degree of impatience to them, with the development section something of a scamper. At the outset the overly energetic tread of the strings, set against the wind counterpoint, meant there was no time at all to admire the landscape. This Unfinished moved like a lively gazelle through the thicket, rather than as a lioness on the prowl.