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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 10 in F-sharp major (1910)
Performing version by Deryck Cooke (1976 - 3rd Edition, 1989)
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. June 2019, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA. DSD
BIS BIS-2396 SACD [78:20]

This is the seventh instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler cycle, all of which I’ve heard. Perhaps it’s appropriate to begin by taking stock of the series so far, since I think it would be fair to say it has garnered varying views on MusicWeb International. Michael Wilkinson admired the First symphony (review) and was, if anything, even more taken with Vänskä’s account of the Fourth (review). I bought both discs and found much to enjoy in them, especially the Fourth. Dan Morgan was not greatly enamoured of the Fifth (review), and I also had some reservations (review). Brian Wilson reviewed the download of the Sixth, giving the interpretation a muted reception. Subsequently, I reviewed the SACD and I felt that an otherwise good performance was let down by an account of the huge finale which I described as “too easy”. Happily, I was much more impressed with Vänskä’s traversal of the Seventh, which I felt was “the best and the most convincing” of his cycle to date (review).

Before going any further, I should pay tribute to Osmo Vänskä for including the Deryck Cooke performing version of the Tenth in his Mahler cycle. It has always saddened me that so many distinguished Mahlerians of the previous generation – Abbado, Bernstein, Haitink, Solti, Tennstedt among them – either passed by the Tenth completely or else got no further than the opening Adagio. I can understand all the objections: that Mahler didn’t complete his work on the score and that the performing version relies on quite an element of conjecture. But it’s always seemed to me that the elements of conjecture in Deryck Cooke’s work were highly informed and very respectful of Mahler. Crucially, though, the Tenth demonstrates that Mahler had more to say after he completed the Ninth. Consequently, we can understand him and his output better through knowing the Tenth, which Cooke and his collaborators, Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin and David Matthews, allowed us to hear. We are poorer, I believe for not knowing what, say, Klaus Tennstedt would have made of Cooke’s performing version. (I acknowledge that there are other performing versions in circulation but Cooke has become firmly established as the “market leader”.) It’s worth noting, in passing, that one distinguished Mahlerian had a change of heart in this respect. Initially, Michael Gielen would not venture beyond the Adagio and he recorded that movement by itself in 1989. However, some years later he changed his mind and a very fine 2005 recording of the Cooke version was the happy result (review).

Happily, the current generation of Mahler conductors is readier to embrace performing versions of the Tenth - by Cooke and by others – and now Vänskä joins their ranks, using Cooke’s third edition of the score, published in 1989. It’s worth making two general points at the start. The first is that the Minnesota Orchestra plays magnificently throughout. Their playing is incisive and idiomatic and though there’s impressive tonal weight whenever it’s required, the orchestra’s soft playing is often a thing of wonder. The second point is that the BIS recording is absolutely superb. There’s an abundance of detail and also a terrific dynamic range. I listened to this hybrid SACD using the stereo layer and I was seriously impressed by the depth of the recording and by the definition. I chose as my comparative version – perhaps inevitably – the 1999 EMI live recording by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (review). Interpretatively, this performance is superb, bespeaking deep knowledge of and empathy with the music. Indeed, when that disc was first released David Gutman, reviewing it in Gramophone, pointed out that Rattle had performed the Tenth nearly 100 times, way more than any other conductor. However, two things should be noted about this recording. One is that when it was made Rattle had not then taken up his role as the BPO’s Chief Conductor. The orchestra plays magnificently, of course, but revisiting the recording now, I wonder if the rapport between players and conductor was then as close as it would become through working regularly together. Secondly, EMI’s recording is good but I don’t think it’s in the same league either as the BIS recording or as some of those which the BPO has produced on its own label in recent years.

Vänskä leads a fine account of the huge opening Adagio. He conveys well the aching nostalgia that permeates many passages. The main differentiation between Vänskä and Rattle is that the latter is a bit swifter and more pointed in his treatment of the quicker episodes; in these sections I think the English conductor displays a slightly lighter touch, investing the rhythms with even more life than Vänskä does. One moment in the Vänskä performance that really caught my ear comes just before 18:17 where the featherlight, ghostly strings testify both to the orchestra’s superb control and to the excellence of the recorded sound. The huge, grinding climax (19:00) is immense, but more than that, the clarity of the BIS recording allows you to hear what’s going on inside those great dissonant blocks of wind and brass sound – EMI’s sound has nowhere near the same definition. The last few minutes (from 21:17) are very beautiful; Vänskä shapes the music with great care and, furthermore, the orchestral playing is rapt – sample the refined, soft string playing between 23:04 and 24:01. Both Vänskä and Rattle give us moving accounts of this extended close.

In the first of the two scherzos Rattle is fractionally quicker but Vänskä is just as adept; the articulation in his performance is just as one would wish it to be and the playing has bite and wit. The slower Ländler episodes are well shaped. To be honest, I don’t think there’s much to choose between Vänskä and Rattle in this movement: it’s nip and tuck, with each conductor bringing out little nuances in the scoring and phrasing. Both conductors do the short, hallucinatory Purgatorio movement very well. I’ve indicated that the BIS recording is streets ahead of the EMI sound. However, in this strange movement it did cross my mind that perhaps the less well-defined EMI sound offered an advantage; with BIS the soundscape is brightly lit though, in compensation, the amount of detail that BIS report is a bonus and enables us to appreciate the incisiveness of the Minnesota performance. In his valuable notes for BIS, Jeremy Barham aptly refers to the “kaleidoscope of waltz-like themes” in the second scherzo. Vänskä handles this movement very well, though I wonder if Rattle is not a little more abandoned at times – in a good way. Once again, the BIS engineers allow us to hear a huge amount of detail and the weird, fragmentary ending of the movement comes off extremely well.

Going into the finale there’s a small but noticeable distinction between the two performances. The fourth movement ends with a dull thump on a bass drum and the sound is repeated right at the start of the fifth movement. These drum strokes were an aural memory of the funeral procession for a New York fireman, killed on duty, which Mahler and Alma glimpsed from the window of their apartment – the drum strokes reappear at several junctures in the finale. Rattle elected to dispense with one of the two drum strokes – one of a number of small modifications he made to Cooke’s scoring, I understand. Vänskä here follows Cooke’s text in that respect and I believe he’s right to do so.

The opening is marked Langsam, schwer (Slow, heavy). Though his tempo is very similar to Vänskä’s, Rattle’s enunciation of the music much better conveys the heaviness that Mahler sought; it’s all about the phrasing. Indeed, I can’t recall any conductor whose way with the music is more oppressive than Rattle; he really achieves an ominous feel in this sepulchral opening. A couple of minutes in, however (2:16 in the Vänskä performance), we hear the wonderful, limpid flute melody. The Minnesotan flautist plays this extended solo beautifully but the Berlin player (was it Emmanuel Pahud, I wonder?) produces an even more fragile sound. The achingly nostalgic melody is then taken over by the violins and the violin sections of both orchestras tug at the heartstrings. In due course the pace quickens and Mahler reminds us of the inner movements, and the Purgatorio in particular. Vänskä’s rendition of this section is very good; there’s plenty of bite in the playing. When Mahler revisits the grinding climax of the first movement, however, I think Rattle wrings even more out of the passage than does Vänskä. That bitter outpouring behind us, the woodwinds reintroduce the flute melody (13:34) and begin the symphony’s extended, bittersweet epilogue. From here to the end the Minnesotans’ playing is very refined and full of feeling; they can also summon up ardour, not least in the last despairing cri de cœur just before the close. Vänskä’s performance is a very good one but I feel that Rattle outdoes him. Though their respective tempi are similar, Rattle seems to give the phrases more space and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing is ideally expressive. In the couple of minutes before that last outburst the Berlin players bring a chamber-like delicacy and fragility to the music that is truly heart-stopping. The way Rattle conducts these pages is very special.

Rattle’s account of the finale seals the deal for me. Vänskä’s performance is a very good one and his orchestra need not fear comparison with the Berlin Philharmonic. Furthermore, the BIS engineering is significantly superior to EMI’s. However, for all his excellence I’m left with the feeling that while Vänskä has the score at his fingertips, Rattle has it in his bones.

So, pressed to make a choice I’d still plump for the Rattle version. However, the Vänskä recording has a lot going for it and those who are collecting his cycle will not be disappointed.

John Quinn






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