Nicholas Collon conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Mahler 's Symphony no 10, or to put it more accurately Deryck Cooke's third Performing edition of Mahler's manuscript. Although it might seem redundant to point out that Mahler didn't complete the symphony, that basic fact is fundamental to any interpretation. Performance practice , and the evaluation thereof, has to deal with its very open-endedness. No one knows what Mahler would have done, had he lived, but one thing is clear. He was looking forwards, not backwards.
When he was working on the Tenth, the parameters of his life had been overturned. He had left Vienna acrimoniously, he'd been betrayed by his wife. Literally, he was in new territory. With all his previous symphonies, he had broken new ground. So whither the 10th? Mahler famously said "My time will come". Perhaps "the time has come" now for Mahler's Tenth. Prof Henry-Louis de la Grange's monumental work has demonstrated just how intellectual and progressive Mahler really was. Far from being the maudlin neurotic Alma portrayed in her memoirs, he was a man keenly aware of what was going on in the world around him, mentally disciplined and unconventional. This has profound implications for performance practice.In the case of Mahler 10, there simply isn't any received wisdom. We are fortunate that Alma's embargo saved us from highly interventionist approaches coloured by factors other than deeper knowledge of the composer and his mind.
The CBSO has an unerring instinct for picking exceptional conductors, with whom they develop stimulating relationships. It's a bold and very creative philosophy. From what I've heard so far of Chief Conductor designate Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, she could do great things. Their instincts seem to pay off, too, with Nicholas Collon. He made his name with the Aurora Orchestra , the lively chamber ensemble. Although I personally haven't heard him conduct large orchestras, he's worked with the CBSO before: now we can hear why. This Mahler 10 wasn't conventional but all the more rewarding for that, since good performance should stretch our understanding of the repertoire.
The Adagio glowed with connotations of Tristan und Isolde, which Mahler always made a point of conducting in Vienna, and particularly poignant in the context of this symphony. The interplay of the two principal themes was well defined, against a surging backdrop. With his keen ear for the pulse of Nature, perhaps Mahler was intuitively evoking the ocean which he'd crossed, physically and emotionally. The themes though elegant seem to stalk each other: lovely as the music is, it's undercut with the chill of sharp, shrill almost staccato figures, eventually rent asunder by blazing dissonance. The pastoral theme which emerges grows more refined and more distant.
At first, I couldn't understand Collon's approach to the first Scherzo, where the jagged edges seemed more frantic than demonic. On re-listening, however, it clicked. It allowed more emphasis on the Purgatorio, which may well have been the heart of the symphony, though it's so brief, and on the more complex second Scherzo. On the title page of the second Scherzo, Mahler writes “The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a preposition, but this whole work is a kind of preposition. Collon's first scherzo thus felt like the first stage in a journey, further focusing attention on whatever might have been the ultimate goal of the symphony.
In this Finale, Collon and the CBSO connected the end with the beginning, thoughtful symmetry connecting to the duality in the Adagio. The hollow drumbeats in this "Fireman's Funeral" were chilling, but the theme resembles the poignant pastoral theme in the adagio. It resolves itself in another dissonance, which yet again dissolves into upward, searching arcs, more and more rarified til the symphony reaches a kind of sublimation. We don't know where Mahler would have gone, but this ending leaves the horizons open, and free.
This concert began with Webern, Six Pieces Op 6 in the chamber transcription, the first version of which was written around the time of Mahler 10 though Webern, for obvious reasons, didn't know that. Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were fascinated by Mahler, and there are many good reasons behind this programme. Incidentally, Boulez discovered Mahler and Webern at roughly the same period, long before he recorded either. Also included was Brahms Four Songs for Women's Voices Op 17 (1862). There aren't many pieces in which a chorus is accompanied by two horns, a harp and nothing more. This minimalist accompaniment sets the voices off surprisingly well. The CBSO Youth Choir did the honours, singing with angelic brightness. Their accents were English, not German, but I didn't mind at all, since that added to the slightly surreal atmosphere of the settings, which are strange, but in a nice way.