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MAHLER: Symphony No.10 in F Sharp Realisation by Joseph H. Wheeler Edited by Robert Olson   The Colorado Mahlerfest Orchestra Conducted by Robert Olson Colorado Mahlerfest MF-10 World Premiere Recording.  Available only direct from the Colorado Mahlerfest:
$14 USA/Canada/Mexico $17 to any other address.


There was a time when opinions like the following were heard more often:

"The author inclines to the view that precisely someone who senses the extraordinary scope of the conception of the Tenth ought to do without adaptations and performances. The case is similar with sketches of unfinished pictures by masters: anyone who understands them and can visualise how they might have been completed would prefer to file them away and contemplate them privately, rather than hang them all on the wall."

Thus spake Adorno on Mahler's Tenth Symphony. I beg to differ, but those who, like Adorno are against any attempt at producing any kind of performing edition out of the material left by Mahler at his death, will be no more interested in this new release than they would in any other. Those who, like Adorno again, believe the material should have been left alone, accessible only to a small coterie of scholars, would long ago have had the chance to make up their minds at the time of the first appearance of the best known version, Deryck Cooke's, in 1964. But for those of us who believe it worthwhile to try to render what Mahler left into a form where we can all hear the direction in which he was heading will want to hear this release, because it's a different version from the one by Cooke and so offers a different way of hearing aspects of the material.

What Mahler left was a symphony complete in short score, the first and third movements orchestrated to almost a final working stage, and some indications in varying density in the rest as to what the orchestration might start to be, might be, or might be inferred to be. No version can be called a "completion", of course. Only Mahler would have been able to complete the work and we know from Mahler's lifelong working practice that, in a thousand ways, it would have sounded different from the various versions . However, so long as we keep in our minds that what we have in each case is a presentation of "work in progress", we ought to be able to keep a sense of perspective and gain a greater insight into Mahler's life and music than we would if we had rejected any realisation out of hand. As the American Mahler scholar Jack Diether put it: "It is much more important that what Mahler wrote should be heard than that which he did not write should not be heard." In this case, I prefer Diether's view to Adorno's.

Joseph ("Joe") Hugh Wheeler was an Englishman born in 1927. Apart from National Service in the Royal Air Force he was a Civil Servant most of his life. He was also a mathematician, ballroom dancer, brass player, composer and Mahler enthusiast from a time when that was unusual. It was in 1953 that he began work in earnest on the Tenth Symphony material, six years before Cooke. He had done so following a meeting in London in 1945 with Jack Diether where the two kindred souls were at an early British performance of the Fifth Symphony. From then on they began a detailed correspondence that would last until Wheeler's death in 1977. Diether encouraged Wheeler to work on the Tenth from the start and he would produce four versions in all. The last, the one represented in this recording, was completed in 1966 and premièred in New York by the Orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music conducted by Jonel Perlea. This is its world première recording.

The splendid liner notes contain articles that detail the history of the Wheeler edition and the large amount of work that had to be done to bring it to "race trim" for the live performance in Boulder in 1997 contained on the CD. They also make mention of the other editions produced down the years: not just Deryck Cooke's, but those by Clinton Carpenter and Remo Mazzetti Jnr. These last two scholars played a part, along with conductor Robert Olson, in bringing Wheeler's edition to life for this recording, proving the sense of fellowship that exists in the Mahler community. Indeed, the short article in the notes by Mazzetti are exemplary in their scholarship and their modesty as to his own contribution to the Tenth Symphony's performing history. Olson's part is dealt with by the conductor himself. He is modest on this too but one suspects it was greater than he admits. This does suggest that what we have before us is not a pure rendition of Wheeler's final version but, in a work that stands or falls on the acceptance of the concept of "work in progress" in the first place, this should not concern us too much.

The Colorado Mahlerfest Orchestra forms for two performances of one Mahler symphony every year at the festival in Boulder. Many of the players come from the Colorado Front Range and others come from elsewhere - professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs - but this is the only time they play together as this orchestra. The drawback is that they don't have the kind of corporate élan to be found in the metropolitan bands or the whipcrack solidity of ensemble that great Mahler playing really needs. Neither can they draw on the experience of playing other composers and that must have some effect on what is produced. Mahler exposes the second rate like no other composer so it's a tribute to them and their conductor that they play as well as they do with a near note-perfect performance taped live. But there is no doubt a few allowances have to be made if absolute perfection in orchestral playing and tonal splendour is important. On the other hand there's no doubting their enthusiasm and the sense that they share their conductor's missionary zeal.

I've had the opportunity of hearing private recordings of Robert Olson conducting all the Mahler's symphonies (plus Das Lied Von Der Erde) except the Third, Fourth and Fifth (his live Eighth is still available on CD from the Colorado Mahlerfest). There is no substitute for hearing a conductor live, but I have found him a direct, cultured and punctilious Mahlerian, a man with a mission to adhere to the letter of the score though some might say at the expense of some passion and emotion. If, like me, you have time for a more cerebral approach to Mahler, one that allows the listener more licence to fill in the emotional gaps than some conductors allow, Olson's more detached style will find favour and is perhaps more of a pointer to the future. If, however, you are one who prefers your Mahler red hot and life-threatening, more backward looking, what you find here may strike you as too neutral, too safe, and there are times when I would have to agree. All that taken into account, what we have is a remarkable recording, in parts approaching the foothills of greatness, where the pros outweigh the cons and produce a convincing experience not to be missed by anyone interested in this composer.

Under Olson the performance of the first movement Adagio, the most familiar part of the symphony and the one that largely needs no work if the editor adheres to presenting Mahler's thoughts as they stood, is most notable for its structural integrity. There's the sense of each episode here delivering an unfolding story as each return of the main adagio material is played with a little more urgency each time. There is a subtle, consistent undertow drawing us on. This approach has much to recomend it and makes a change from some of the over-expressiveness that can distort the music. If, as I believe, we are experiencing music on the cusp of one thought world and the next, a sense of detachment is a positive advantage. I also like Olson's sense of a strict dichotomy between the warm, noble music and the spikily dissonant passages. Presented like this we are aware that the music of this symphony presents vulnerability, always trying, and ultimately failing, to keep away terrors. This prepares us well for the confirmation of this idea at the great brass chorale blaze, about three quarters of the way through, that culminates in the emotional heart of the work, a shattering dissonance crowned by a long held note on the solo trumpet that pierces the symphony like a hypodermic full of poison which means that, from then on, the symphony's world-view is never the same again. Here Mahler is almost mapping his own and Europe's psychic landscape at one and the same time. It's vitally important that we never forget this moment and under Olson we don't. However, there is a clean, almost clinical feel to this passage as played here. It lacks some of the raw emotional power others bring and the impression is of purgation rather than wounding. It's an interesting, refreshing impression, not one we are used to.

It is from the second movement onwards that listeners familiar with the version by Deryck Cooke will notice the differences and it's quite a task to comment on these and the interpretation by Robert Olson separately. This is not the place, and I am not the person, to give a bar-by-bar account of the countless small differences between this version and Cooke's, or any of the others. In that direction my comments are perforce going to be general, but I hope I can give some indication of where differences lie and what I think of them.

There's a great deal of evidence to suggest that Mahler was viewing this as a bipartite symphony with the first and second movements forming Part I. I think Olson is very aware of this because there seems a clear idea of presenting "the other side of the coin" to the one we have heard in the first movement as the contrast between them couldn't be greater whilst there is still the vestige of an idea that the two are symbiotically connected. With all that in mind I enjoyed the idiomatic treatment of the "Trios" that this first scherzo almost "fall into" in the course of this movement. Just as in the first movement there is alternation between two specific kinds of material (the symbiotic relationship between them surely), here in the second movement the idea is carried many steps further with the awkward, asymmetrical main material alternating with the nostalgically charged Trios. Under Olson these keep moving just a little faster than usual and there is opinion to suggest that a greater slowing down was a misunderstanding of the source material on Cooke's part that is corrected by Wheeler, though I believe Olson felt the music naturally suggested a slowing down so this is what emerged in rehearsal. Olson's sense of proportion, noticed in the first movement, and the Wheeler version's much clearer wind lines, help produce what I think is a more Mahlerian sound - though with the caveats to follow below. I also couldn't help noticing a kinship between passages in these Trios and their counterparts in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. I'm unsure as to whether this is a case of the Wheeler edition or Olson's interpretation of it, or both, but I found it illuminating all the same. It is certainly the case that Wheeler's score is from now on a tougher sound than Cooke's, less cushioned, more febrile, more worrying.

In his liner notes article, Remo Mazzetti writes:

"Whereas Cooke and I imitated the textures of the middle period symphonies (5,6 & 7) and Carpenter tried to re-create the dense polyphony of the Ninth, Wheeler alone allowed Mahler's own leaner textures to come through clearly. In this, Wheeler's final version is closer to Das Lied Von Der Erde than any of the other versions, not because Wheeler thought that this should be so, but because Mahler's own orchestration of the first half of the symphony strongly suggested this."

I'm glad Mazzetti uses the word "closer" regarding relationships between the sound of the Wheeler version and Das Lied Von der Erde rather than "close". There is a whole world of difference between what we hear in this Tenth version and that other masterpiece from Mahler's final triptych, particularly the translucency Mahler manages to obtain from his chamber-like textures in Das Lied. But Mazzetti's point is to be born in mind. Wheeler does indeed make the case for a new sound palette being explored within a recognisable line of descent that claims parentage to Das Lied Von der Erde rather than any other work in the Mahler canon. It has often been said that Wheeler is the least interventionist of the various editors. Compared with Clinton Carpenter he certainly is, but it is a lot more complex than that, as Remo Mazzetti also argues.

This is all born out most strongly in the fourth movement, the second scherzo. This has always been the problem movement for me when listening to the Cooke version. I have never been especially moved, or completely convinced, by Cooke's version here, always feeling that in this movement I was the furthest away from Mahler, not really feeling that the music suits the scribbled exclamations Mahler left in his score: "Madness, seize me, the accursed !" "Destroy me so that I may forget that I exist !" etc. Of course, like all Mahlerites, I have been lost in admiration for Cooke's work and gratitude for the fact that we have always had it to hear when we might have had nothing. But there is no doubt in my mind that it's in this movement Wheeler's version really comes into its own. The immediate aspect one notices is that Wheeler is freer than Cooke in his use of percussion. In fact he was even freer than is represented here since this is one area of the orchestration Robert Olson admits to having adjusted down. Nevertheless, the percussion, and then, as the music progresses, those starker, clearer wind lines and the greater "openness" of the orchestration I referred to, (with correspondingly less use of strings as cushion), make this the movement where, as Mahler himself writes in his sketches "The Devil Dances it with me". It is in this movement as rendered here that Mahler's nightmare visions, the one's that have threatened chaos right through, actually seem to be winning. Olson helps by not rushing the music and also knowing when to slow down even more to mark the rhythmic effects, grinding the music into our minds. With this in mind the orchestral quotation from the first song in Das Lied Von der Erde emerges with a degree more bitterness and abandon, and so too do the dance-like elements where Olson judges the snap of the gallumphing gaits to perfection and is helped considerably by Wheeler's more astringent sound. He is also able to accentuate more dissonance to a degree I have not been aware of to quite this extent. This is an uncomfortable ride.

Altogether, Wheeler and Olson in this movement seem to take us further into the century than Cooke, giving us a newly-tantalising "might have been" glimpse of where Mahler could have gone. Is that modern urban life I hear as the music starts to wind down ? Perspectives shifting even more profoundly than usual, dynamic contrasts sharp, percussion more prominent ? Tram cars, trains and motors, the buzzes and clicks of the telegraph - the "Victorian Internet" ? Mahler the precursor of Varese rather than Webern ? Maybe....and maybe that's far too programmatic for a composer who rejected programmes. But I cannot stress too highly my admiration for the fourth movement as recorded here. It is something genuinely new and very important and makes us ask questions of the music we may not have asked before.

It's worth adding that, with the bipartite structure in mind, the opening movement of Part II, the tiny but profoundly important third movement Purgatorio, prepares the ground perfectly for the fourth with a crepuscular, wind-dominated and more sour-sounding piece than with Cooke.

Perhaps the most famous passage in any realised Mahler Tenth is that when the composer recalls the moment the funeral of a serving fireman paused beneath his hotel window in New York in 1908 and a drum was struck in commemoration. It's the moment in this work when you know that the horrors have at last taken over the house. There is some dispute as to what exactly Mahler heard that day in 1910. Was it a single stroke on a drum, or was it, as has recently been researched by the man responsible for engineering this very recording, a short tattoo ? Whichever, Mahler asks in the score for a single blow. There is further dispute as to what kind of drum should be used and how hard it should be struck. For myself I believe the more recent trend of getting the percussionist to hit his drum as hard as possible is mistaken. Whatever Mahler heard, and what ever Mahler meant the audience to hear, I don't believe he really meant the kind of deafening cannonade you hear in the recording by Rattle on EMI, for example. Olson is of the more restrained persuasion, though even he might have instructed his player not to strike with quite so much enthusiasm as this. What someone familiar with the Cooke version will notice most about the Wheeler version of the opening of the fifth movement is the fact that the ascending figure that accompanies the drum strokes is given to the cellos rather than the solo tuba and is delivered at a quicker tempo. For me, Cooke's solution always sounded too much like Fafner waking up in Wagner's Ring and I prefer Wheeler. A pure presentation of the Wheeler material may have had this taken even faster and I think Olson exercised some creative interpretation here, but the difference is still very telling. It has the effect of integrating this crucial passage more into the general tableaux of the work, knitting it back into the previous movement and forward to what is to come. I also loved the feeling of a small military band procession in one of the contributions from the woodwind choir. It is idiomatically Mahlerian to an extent that Cooke just isn't.

As the drum falls silent the music climbs once again and we are in the presence of the solo flute passage that so impressed those who heard Cooke's score for the first time in 1964. Wheeler leaves the flute playing alone rather than, as Mazzetti does, hand the material around the section and he is surely correct. In the subsequent quicker passages of the movement Olson's sense of the architecture of the work doesn't fail him and all of the references back to the Purgatorio and to the two scherzos come off, as too does the greater sense of dynamic contrasts that were so telling in the fourth movement. The final, clinching dissonance, the recall of the key piercing high trumpet passage from back in the first movement carries the same purging quality and a sense of "full circle" is achieved. This is such a consistently "thought through" performance, symphonic.

The final section, where Mahler surely reaches a peace and resignation like no others in any of his works, is in keeping with Olson's treatment of the first movement - very pure, very direct, without self-indulgence or excess, but built up unerringly, if a little "four-squarely". Others might prefer more passion here, I wouldn't disagree with that, but as a presentation of the score you could not really ask for any more. I liked the cymbal crash that Wheeler puts into the score at one moment of resolution too.

A final word on the sound recording. The man responsible for recording this performance is Jerry Bruck, a Mahler scholar in his own right and the last survivor of the three men who went to visit Alma Mahler in her New York apartment to successfully persuade her to lift her ban on any performances of Deryck Cooke's version. Bruck's philosophy in recording balance is to use as few microphones as possible to achieve a natural balance and that is what he has done here. This is what I call "conductor's balance" with everything clear and in perspective but rather close-in which may be a drawback for those who like their recordings big and glamorous, mimicking a concert hall. To me the sound we hear on this CD is the type that is ideal for domestic listening and study - and enlightenment, of which there is plenty here.

This is a release of importance to the Mahler discography and is more than worthy of joining it. The availability of Wheeler's edition does not, I think, herald a replacement for Deryck Cooke's but a complement to it, as are those by Clinton Carpenter and Remo Mazzetti. The fact that Remo Mazzetti has himself revised the version that has been before us these past few years and that news has come of another version, by the conductor Rudolf Barshai, should tell us that the story of Mahler's Tenth is still one of "work in progress".


Tony Duggan


Tony Duggan

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