Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mahler 10 Schubert Dausgaard BBC SSO Prom

Thomas Dausgaard (Credit: Thomas Grøndahl)
Thomas Dausgaard, new Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with two Unfinished symphonies, Schubert Symphony no 8 Unvollende, and Mahler Symphony no 10.  Uncompleted symphonies always fascinate because they open out tantalizing prospects.   This Prom was interesting because it focused on possibilities. Since we'll never know how the symphonies might have been completed, we listen differently, keeping things open-ended. 

Though neither Dausgaard nor the BBC SSO are new to the Proms, it was their first Prom together in this new season.  Interesting potential, there, too. Dausgaard's less of a showman than Runnicles was, closer, perhaps to Ilan Volkov who was (and is) a thinker, something to value in these times.
Unfinished symphonies help us focus on the music, and on the composer.  The curse of a review system is that performances are judged by the number of stars they get in a review, rather than by how such judgements are arrived at. We get locked into like/dislike instead of analyzing why we think the way we do.  Most performances have something to offer, pro and con: ultimately what counts is what we've learned from the experience.

Deryck Cooke's third performance version remains the standard because it reflects years of immersion in Mahler's work and creative processes. Everyone seems to want a shot at "completing" what would have been Mahler's Tenth symphony, but many aren't worth the effort.  Better, I think, to listen in depth to Cooke,  which brings out the inventiveness that makes Mahler so challenging. In a way this is a schizophrenic symphony,  the duality in the first movement contradicted in the second two. What it's not, though, is a death symphony.  If anything, it deals with light and transfiguration, as in nearly all the other symphonies.  When it was written, Mahler was about to embark on a new stage in his career, possibly even more radical than his past. This affects interpretation.  Where was Mahler heading, and what was he taking with him from the past?

Dausgaard and the BBC SSO created an elegant Adagio, the shimmering opening strings enriched by a richer response.  The celli and basses were positioned in the centre of the orchestra, flanked by the winds, brass to one side, percussion on the other.  Interesting, since the lower strings are in many ways the heart of this movement, whatever it might mean. If the duality represents the composer and his "ewiger weiblicher" muse, the lower timbre might represent the composer himself.  The pace picks up and "scream chords" blazed.  The ending (harps, strings and high winds) was drawn out carefully, opening outwards, not closing in.

The brisk figure that opens the first Scherzo breaks tranquility still further. The strings attempt to recreate the poise of the Adagio but the horns blast it away. I'd like to hear Dausgaard take more risks, even making it more grotesque, for Weltlauf loosely translates as "world running", the world hurtling on its way, mocking the idea that things can never change.  Like Purgatory in theology, the Purgatorio is short but transitional.  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, open ended because it isn't complete.  Dausgaard made more of the dreamy waltz that circulates through this section, though, suggesting that the dialogue in the Adagio continues, though it has changed.   Mahler wrote of the Fireman's Funeral in the Finale.  "Only you [Alma] knows what it means".  So it means something, even if we'll never know exactly what.  Here the funeral march solidity wasn't strongly defined though the more delicate "footsteps" were nicely done, leading to the drumstrokes and brooding brass and woodwinds. The resolution that follows ascended slowly upwards, the strings shimmering, the horns calling as hunting horns do. Or the trumpets of angels.  Who knows?  But Mahler isn't standing still.

Every performance teaches you something about the music, and the perspectives from which  it is approached.   Dausgaard's good on detail, carefully building up textures. The piccolo could be heard, even surrounded by tubas, the flutes best of all.  He's less strong on destination.  I prefer more incisive M10's, with stronger forward thrust, where a sense of trauma intensifies the power of the Finale, but this performance was satisfying enough to make me hope for more from Dausgaard and the BBC SSO.

Listening to Mahler's Unfinished after Schubert's Unfinished was also rewarding. While Mahler left plenty for Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers to work on, Schubert's manuscripts leave little trace of what might have been.  For all we know, Schubert might have  had other things to do.    The two movements are fairly similar. but we're left hanging.  Nonetheless, what  we do have is so lovely, it hardly matters.  But we cannot avoid the fact that Mahler had every intention of completing his manuscript, nor dismiss the substantial material he did leave behind.

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