Part 14: Completing Mahler

Riccardo Chailly's thought-provoking revisions of Mahler's Tenth Symphony gave outstanding results, says Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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Is Mahler's Tenth Symphony still under construction? That was the question I found myself asking after Monday's Prom with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Over the years, various scholars have attempted to turn Mahler’s sketches for his incomplete final symphony into a performable work, but none of their elaborations has been quite as vigorously championed as that by British musicologist Deryck Cooke.
 
Cooke’s version was the first to be performed in full and the first to be laid down on record. His doggedly non-interventionist approach – revised twice with the help of Berthold Goldschmidt and Colin and David Matthews – has won many admirers, and has since been performed by most of the world’s great orchestras. (Sir Simon Rattle famously made a recording of Cooke’s final version shortly after his appointment at the Berlin Philharmonic.) Despite other completions by the likes of Joseph Wheeler and Clinton Carpenter, it is Cooke’s edition alone that has established Mahler’s Tenth as part of the repertoire.
 

Cooke refused to refer to his work as a completion, preferring the term 'performing version' – Mahler, after all, was the only person who could have completed the symphony. But this self-effacement has led to an unusual situation. Not content to accept the 16 years of scholarship that went into Cooke’s edition, almost every conductor I have encountered feels the need to amend the score themselves.
 

Chailly did some of this himself, and his revisions were certainly thought-provoking. The most obvious example was in the symphony’s last movement – one of Mahler’s most astonishing stretches of music, even in its unfinished form – which is punctuated throughout by the sound of a bass drum, muffled but played fortissimo. Those dry, funereal thwacks are enough to send a shiver down even the most seasoned of spines.
 

But Chailly had come up with something better. Instead of the usual heart-stopping, isolated drumbeats, his performance last night featured a short, two-note anacrusis before each note – 'buh-duh-DUM! Buh-duh-DUM!' The effect sounded alarmingly like Japanese taiko drumming, but it actually made a lot of sense. That particular rhythmic motif appears in various guises all the way through the symphony’s last three movements. Still as far as I know there is no evidence to suggest this is what Mahler had intended.
 

Which returns me to my original question: is Mahler's Tenth still under construction? Are there any other pieces in the repertory where a conductor can 'improve' the score by recomposing it? Mahler himself used to do this all the time, of course – Chailly recently recorded Mahler’s lovingly reworked versions of Schumann’s symphonies, which feature some very Mahlerian touches here and there – but this is the 21st century and we are supposed to frown upon such interference these days.
 

Personally, though, I quite like the idea that this symphony can never be complete. Chailly’s Mahler Ten may differ from Simon Rattle’s or Kurt Sanderling’s or Michael Gielen’s, but the thought and care that has clearly gone into each of their differing interpretations shows a unique level of engagement with Mahler’s music. That can only be a good thing.
 

Anyway, in a good performance – and last night’s was outstanding – there is no question of what you are hearing. However it is performed, in whatever edition and in whatever interpretation, the Tenth Symphony is Mahler, plain and simple.
 
 
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...