Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra in Michael Tippett The Rose Lake and Mahler Symphony no 10 (Cooke III performing edition) at the Barbican, London. Mega mega high profile, advertised a year ago, livestreamed internationally and broadcast on the BBC. Members of the LSO in white tie. In the audience - Marina Mahler, grand daughter of the composer and Colin Matthews, one of Deryck Cooke's team. While still a teenager, Matthews (b.1946) was so interested in Cooke's work that he contacted him : the rest is history. Interval features are usually time for tea, but Matthews is worth listening to as he sheds new light. The symphony will never, ever be "complete", and that is its fascination. The challenge, in performance, is to present it with a sense of open-endedness and possibility. Rattle took the last minutes sedately, for they are too precious to rush through, letting them breathe and rise, like the finale of Mahler Symphony no 9, dissolving into infinity. Even more potently, he drew the connections between beginning and end - shrill strings reminiscent of the "death scream" against darker, warmer hues, almost, but not quite resolving the duality in the first movement. In so many ways this duality is the heart of the entire work, but poignantly, it hangs tantalizingly unfinished. Very sophisicated, and very moving.
Rattle's Mahler springs from a very long British tradition, which goes back many decades. As a music student, Britten bought Horenstein's 1927 recoirding of Kindertotenlieder and drove his friends nuts playing it over and over. After 1933, the influx of emigrés - including Bertholdt Goldschmidt - strengthened the connections. Rattle, like so many others, imbibed his Mahler from Walter, Barbirolli, Haitink, Horenstein etc. all of whom were active in Britain. Rattle's Mahler thus reflects a wider European tradition, as opposed to, say, the Bernstein mould. From what we now know about Mahler, this tradition better reflects the composer himself, which specially pertains to this last work.
The Adagio began with exquisite refinement : gossamer textures floated, the yearning string lines enhanced by the entry of a deeper, more resonant theme. The horns break away, as if they're leading us further into the realms of Mahler's creative imagination. Perhaps these two themes represent Mahler and Alma, his "ewiger weiblicher" Muse. The relationship was central to Mahler's creativity, so background knowledge does impact on performance practice. Rattle judged the duality with poised balance, but pointedly highlighted the fragile figure before the final return of the "Alma " theme, shaded by horns. As so often in Mahler, equanimity even born from struggle, cannot last. When the "scream chord",was released a cataclysmic blast of near dissonance. The allusions to alpine meadows returned, but muted, tinged with melancholy.
The swaggering Weltlauf in the wild first Scherzo brutally mocked the refinement of the Adagio. The world runs on, whether it suits us or not. No neurotic self pity here : not Mahler's style. The rapid changes of meter and tempo were well defined, but not necessarily manic, which is no fault, since the movement ends with glorious, exuberant vigour, tautly defined, heralded by trumpets which in Mahler signify forward movement, not stagnation. This time the dichotomy between themes feels dangerous, the throwing down of a creative gauntlet? Far from being neurotic, Mahler was entering a new phase in life, and possibly new creative challenges. The jerky figures in the strings, winds and brass felt deliciously wicked. The Purgatorio is short but structurally important, linking the first and 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, well served by Rattle's non-dogmatic touch.
A delicate yet quirky waltz circulates through this movement, in counterpoise to the demonic tensions. Significantly the lone voice of the violin is joined by other individual voices, including oboe, flute and bassoon. Yet where was Mahler heading ? The brooding tuba heralded the heavy tread of the "Fireman's Funeral" in the Finale. Alma and Mahler had watched the funeral, of a fireman from their hotel room. Only Alma knew what that meant to the composer, so we can only speculate in musical terms. Though there are many funeral marches in Mahler, this one's particularly chilling because it's so uncompromising, muted horns and trumpets, bassoons and tuba in solemn procession. Yet a flute sang, its voice rising upwards : like a bird, like a soul, free of worldly constraints. Though the tuba still mourned, solo trumpet led the orchestra forward, proceeding quietly but with the poise with which Rattle marked the first movement. The "death scream" returns, but now less strident, more integrated into the whole. A wonderful performance, even by the standrds of the LSO at its best. Though Ratlle has conducted numerous Mahler 10's, this was one for the ages.
A remarkable programme, too, beginning with Tippett's The Rose Lake. There's little connection between Tippett's The Rose Lake and Mahler 10, but who cares ? This performance was in itself mega high profile, since it's not often heard live, which Tippett fans would have been anticipating all year. Rattle has always been good at developing repertoire, and part of his remit as Music Director of the LSO is to promote modern British music. Please read HERE about his keynote concert at the start of the season where he conducted an eclectic programme of Elgar, Birtwistle, Knussen and Adès. More to come ! Sir Colin Davis conducted the LSO in the first recording of the piece twenty-one years ago, and Richard Hickox conducted the BBC National Orchestra oF Wales in 2005. Those versions very different, as was this performance with Rattle, which was easily up in the same league as Davis and Hickox, the LSO sounding revitalized, playing better than they've played in years.
Ostensibly, The Rose Lake is a video in music, inspired by Le lac rose in Sénégal, which Tippett visited in 1990. As the angle of the sun changed, the colours in the landscape changed, a concept that translates well into a study of orchestral colour. It was "a continuous five part composition, in essence a set of variations .....a song without words for orchestra", as Tippett wrote at the time.
The sections with programmatic titles mix with sections where only tempo gives clue to meaning, the twelve short segments moving forward in sequence, suggesting the passage of time. Dense but lucid layers of sound as beautifully structured as mosaic. I thought of Birtwistle Earth Dances, but lighter and shining. In the organic "earth forms" and especially in the bird sounds, I thought of Olivier Messiaen, who was also fascinated by radiant aural colour and keyed percussion.