Sunday, 22 November 2009

Mahler 10 Harding Mendelssohn Tetzlaff

Because Mahler didn't complete the Tenth Symphony, performance needs to be open ended, recognizing that we'll never know what might have been. What a conductor hears in the material is just as informative as what we might assume we know.

That's why I found Riccardo Chailly's Mahler 10th with the Leipzig Gewandhaus at this year's Proms so fascinating. Chailly brought out aspects of the Eternal Feminine: a concept quite explicitly developed in the 8th Symphony. Connecting the 10th to the 8th is perfectly valid, for Mahler is on both sides of the divide in his life, before and after the crisis with Alma.

Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra's Mahler 10 at the Barbican on 20th November was altogether tougher and sterner, more cognizant of the horrors in the piece, so in that sense is a more conventional reading. In the alternating themes of the Adagio, Harding hears duality too, but develops it into a complex shifting between polarities. The themes circle each other, interweaving rather than firmly connecting. Mahler and Alma, perhaps, since the composer marked his manuscript with so many references to the woman he loved.

But Harding hears the Adagio as a prelude for what is to come. As sao often in Mahler, beginnings set the stage for ultimate resolution in a different form. The Adagio isn't an end in itself. Perhaps Alma wanted only the Adagio to be performed because she wanted to maintain a romantic image of her marriage. Obviously Mahler adored her. But the manuscript shows that he was going further. As Harding has said, the “famous “scream” chord in the first movement, a nine-note dissonance, is an astonishing cry of anguish …. "it’s pure Edvard Munch in music”.

Dissonance of the soul, teetering on an abyss of something terrifying and new. The duality, in Harding, is unsettling, uncomforting. Some performing editions try too hard to "complete" the 10th, smoothing out the angularity, but Cooke III lets them hang. Thus, in the second scherzo, Harding kept the LSO tightly reined in, so they don't cover the jagged edges Mahler left incomplete by "normal" orchestral colour. In his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, Harding's careful control was even more shocking, because the VPO is an orchestra for whom stark chiaroscuro almost doesn't exist. But that's the whole point. We don't know where Mahler was heading, we can't paper over the aural gaps.

Hence the hollownesss, particularly well shaped in the second (and most incomplete) scherzo and in the Finale : the drumbeats here truly sounded strangled, cut off in mid flow, minimal resonance. The fireman's funeral GM and Alma watched in New York moved him deeply, exactly why we'll never know. But the fireman was cut down in his prime, so the drumbeats are both dirge and truncated heartbeats. Good as the LSO is, the Vienna Philharmonic recording shows just how chilling a performance can be (for a review see link above).

Alma was Mahler's muse, but she wasn't a benevolent deity. She scratched out the second part of its title "oder Inferno", and cut away the bottom half of the title page which may have contained a poem she didn't like. GM loved her but he was smart enough to know her love for him was utterly conditional. He may have won her back but that didn't mean she might not leave again. Alma loved playing angelic nurse to ailing husband, but when he was gone, she went back to Gropius. And, by praising Alma's rather banal songs, Mahler was making compromises with his artistic instinct, even if that was understandable in the circumstances. So Harding's tense, disturbing approach to the symphony is psychologically as well as musically astute.

Most of the audience at the Barbican on Friday night seemed to have come for Christian Tetzlaff's Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Tetzlaff's amazing and this is one of his showpieces. Divinely fluid playing, rewarded by unusually prolonged applause. Yet part of the magic was due to the orchestra, too, because Mendelssohn wasn't writing for a demented violinist-as-demon . Here the LSO got to demonstrate their delicacy, carefully micromanaged by Harding without losing the whimsical spontaneity in the piece. Pairing Mendelssohn with Mahler was a very good idea, for the poised balance in Mendelssohn contrasts with the wavering polarities in Mahler. Yet both pieces were executed with sensitive, musically informed intelligence.

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