If, like me, you’ve always regarded Mahler’s Tenth Symphony as more like a suggestion of what might have been, prepare to be convinced as never before. Not only is Osmo Vänskä’s one of the best recorded versions of the work – heard as is generally the case in Deryck Cooke’s second performing version of 1976 – it has a uniquely cohesive quality that belies the fragmented state of Mahler’s unfinished thoughts. Put simply, Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra make you believe in the work as a fully-fledged musical and dramatic entity. Their compelling and involving account had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.
Until Cooke’s work on the Tenth – which received the blessing of the composer’s widow in 1961 – the only music to have been regularly played was the opening Adagio, all that Mahler managed to complete and score himself. The fact that the first Scherzo is labelled “Scherzo Finale” suggests that the symphony may have been intended to go out with a bang. Instead, the composer placed it in the second of five folders, a change of mood that may have been dictated by his sudden anguished awareness of his wife’s adultery and his worsening health. His desolate scribblings on the manuscript copy suggests a man in the depths of despair.
The composer’s own apparent uncertainty, coupled with the fragmentary nature of what remained at his death, certainly added to Cooke’s challenge. Any conductor prepared to take it on – and Bruno Walter and Bernstein were among those who refused to conduct it – understands that they must make a case for it as a coherent symphonic work.
Throughout his fine cycle for BIS, Vänskä has proved himself especially adept at bringing out the fantasy in Mahler’s work, his magical accounts of the Fifth and Seventh proving especially satisfying in this regard. Here, he doesn’t just deliver on the felicitous detail, although there is certainly plenty of that. With a strong sense of the tale that he wants to tell and the musical arc through which he intends to tell it, Vänskä holds to a vision that pitches from peaceful repose into moments of diabolical madness and ends in resignation.
From the outset, Vänskä’s handling of the opening Adagio is sublime, its long themes opening up in endless waves thanks to the clean-toned Minnesota strings and the conductor’s perfectly judged balance between purposeful progress and emotional repose. Silences here are recognised as being as important as sound, but there’s plenty of dramatic incident too, with neurotic woodwind and muted brass injecting elements of cynicism. Vänskä’s determination to never allow the music to swoop or wallow pays dividends as the 27 minutes approach their restful close. BIS’s engineering – producer Robert Suff and sound engineer Matthias Spitzbarth – is immaculate, simultaneously spacious and detailed, and presented with convincing weight and clarity. The contrast between the pristine pianissimo strings and the moment the Adagiofinally heaves its heart into its mouth is overwhelming.
The first Scherzo is nimble and fleet of foot, Vänskä’s insistence on delicacy over grotesquery tying it neatly to the first movement. Again, incident is brought out with considerable imagination and there’s some superb solo work from the Minnesota principals. This is musical storytelling at its finest.
In Vänskä’s hands the “Purgatorio” movement is a gossamer reflection of the younger composer in the carefree days of the Fourth Symphony upon which the clouds occasionally darken. Building his argument, Vänskä urges the fourth movement second Scherzo along while ensuring plenty of contrasts. “The devil is dancing this with me; madness, seize me and destroy me,” Mahler wrote at the top of this movement, ending with, “You alone know what it means. Ah! Ah! Farewell my lyre! Farewell, farewell, farewell, farewell. Ah! Ah!”.
Linking the two final movements is a dramatic coup. The sudden impact of the muffled drum – inspired by a funeral procession that Mahler and Alma witnessed from the window of their New York hotel room – is heart-stopping, as is the following progression in which the musical spools of Mahler’s life seem to gradually unravel towards that final page where Mahler scribbled, “für dich leben! für dich sterben! Almschi!” (To live for you! To die for you! Almschi!). Over 25 unmissable minutes, Vänskä interweaves the moving with the mercurial in a riveting demonstration of musical storytelling.
As this Minnesota cycle enters the final furlong, this Tenth is a major achievement. And for once, one suspects, Mahler will be up there nodding his approval.
Work: Symphony No 10
Performer: Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Label: BIS BIS2396