Smouldering CBSO Mahler Ten Blazes Into Life

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

The musician, writer, BBC broadcaster and cultural provocateur Hans Keller drew up a wide-ranging list of “phony professions”: viola players, conductors, opera producers and critics were mercilessly lampooned. So were musicologists but for that profession this concert provided the perfect defence. This performance of Mahler's Tenth Symphony could never have happened without the vision, patience, and persistence of British musicologist Deryck Cooke. He argued that what Mahler left at his untimely death – a completed first movement, sketches and short score drafts of four others – had “continuity from beginning to end, however tenuous in places.” He never claimed his work, aided by composers Berthold Goldschmidt, with later help from Colin and David Matthews, was a completion but simply a performing version. He was long opposed by Mahler’s widow Alma but she relented after hearing a BBC broadcast of Cooke’s work-in-progress.

Here was triumphant proof and justification of his labour – a blazingly refulgent performance from the CBSO under American conductor Robert Treviño. He was a late replacement for the indisposed Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and that may have accounted for the slightly circumspect start like a firework whose fuse has been lit but one is not sure if it will ignite. Once the first movement’s cataclysmic passage had been reached, where Mahler engineers a grinding dissonance, with the CBSO trumpet screaming out a migraine-inducing sustained high note, everything sparked into life. There was immense power from the brass and expanded percussion section but also some deliriously beautiful string playing from the heights of leader Eugene Tzikindelean’s violin to the Stygian depths of Anthony Alcock’s bass section.

The sheer wildness and devilry of Mahler’s invention was captured in the demented first scherzo with its dizzying constant changes of rhythm, and where at one point the orchestra emits a series of gigantic musical cock-crows, and the succeeding ‘Purgatorio’ was as oppressive and disturbing as the name merits. Mahler’s myriad changes of mood and emotional registers are immensely taxing for players and conductor but all were captured here. Just a sample: Marie-Christine Zupancic’s ethereal flute like an angelic visitation of peace amidst the broiling turmoil; the amazing upward surge of the violins through two octaves; the terrifying re-appearance in the finale of the Adagio’s trumpet blast starting an even mightier dissonant eruption; Mahler’s coup de théâtre bass drum strokes linking the last two movements. A performance must be more that the sum of its parts and this was – a musical and emotional journey where we reached, after may trials and travails, a consolatory vision of peace and reconciliation.

Norman Stinchcombe

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