Concert Review: SSO plays Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (Clinton Carpenter version) Mendelssohn violin concerto

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (Clinton Carpenter version)
Mendelssohn violin concerto

Renaud Capucon, violin
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui

3rd April 2009
Esplanade Concert Hall

Guilty Mahler-fan secret: I have never really “got” the completed tenth symphony, or rather I have never loved it as wholeheartedly the way I have his other works. Deryck Cooke’s most performed version in recordings by Kurt Sanderling, Simon Rattle (twice) and Riccardo Chailly, though, seems to me closest to what Mahler (left) might have had in mind, had he completed the work, in terms of economy of orchestration and clarity of ideas, if nothing else. Other versions by Remo Mazetti Jr. and Wheeler are both valid assumptions, but I think them also-rans as compared with the Cooke.

In this concert, Lan Shui chose to perform the version by Clinton Carpenter, an American musicologist. When I spoke to him earlier in the year this was by no means carved in stone – he had not decided on which version to perform. I wish he hadn’t chosen this one, though in a sort of warped way it allowed the more intrepid among us to satisfy a morbid curiousity.

I say that because the Carpenter version is the most un-Mahlerian completion of the Tenth Symphony I know. Provocative, daring and yet in the final analysis, I think, a failure, Carpenter’s version illuminates precisely by making the audience crystallize what exactly Mahler is – it is an image whose own defects make us understand better what the essence of Mahler is.

Ten years ago in 1999, Lan Shui prefaced a concert of Anne-Sophie Mutter playing the Beethoven (an extremely memorable one, for all the right reasons), with a performance of the Adagio from the 10th. I remember speaking with an Australian girl around my age and telling her a bit about the work before, and the deeply moving performance that ensued. This was not to be that evening. Over the years, the conductor has picked up distracting bad habits that threatened to do damage to the music. Purely as a comparison, he took an estimated 30 minutes to get through the opening movement, with a choice of glacial tempi that proved detrimental; whereas Simon Rattle in his Berlin recording took 25min 11 sec, Riccardo Chailly got through it in a similar timing of 25:56. The problem was that Lan Shui’s performance of the work this time came off as being a series of episodes, the conductor more concerned with micromanaging each episode rather than viewing the piece as a whole.

The orchestra’s unfamiliarity with the score didn’t help. In many of the previous Mahler performances I’ve had the fortune to see Lan Shui conduct (the 5th, 9th, 7th, 8th and most recently the 3rd remain experiences I cherish for his musical insights and excitement he could bring the music, whereas the 2nd I remember as being a truly disappointing reading of the work). From the start of the Adagio, he obviously did try to imbue some of the bleakness in that opening viola passage, but constant agogic tempo shifts prevented the listener from hearing the line in the development of the music. In the Adagio, Mahler’s mastery of the form was complete and after the shimmering violins come in in the movement’s main key of F-sharp major, the music simply blossoms, with the mixed emotions of love and regret that Mahler was so wonderful at writing into music. When one thinks of this wonderful Adagio, one judges the conductor on how effectively he manages these essential qualities, as well as the later, more episodic ‘empty dance hall’ music and that petrifying huge dissonant chord that comes with the trumpet soaring above it. I expected Lan Shui’s understanding of the work to have grown through the years, and it came as an unpleasant surprise to find myself left cold, by this conductor and orchestra who left me in tears so many years ago – a flaccid performance devoid of tension.

Perhaps some of Lan Shui’s foundering had to do with Carpenter himself. Most musicologists consider the Adagio and Purgatorio complete in themselves and concern themselves only with trying to make the best sense of what Mahler might have done with the remaining three movements. Not so for Carpenter, whose fiddling and rescoring and touching-up of the work amounts to musical graffiti. For example in the violin entrance he found it necessary to add a tuba to support the line, creating a mood of general warmth rather than that concentrated intensity Mahler was capable of creating so easily. It was rather amusing at first, playing spot the difference, but the game was too simple, and thus more horrific, with each touch-up. There were some spots of inspiration, with an added line of counterpoint that made me think, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to this guy after all”, but many were the musical equivalent of adding eyebrows to the Mona Lisa – just wrong.

Carpenter also seems obsessed with percussion and brass. When Mahler wrote his Fifth Symphony he showed it to his wife Alma, then truly in love with the man, who sobbed and said it was overscored. I don’t know what Alma thought of Carpenter’s completion, but I suspect it would have upset her. Toward the end of his life, and after the Sixth Symphony Mahler had grown toward a more concise, more virtuosic use of the orchestra which was known as much for its sheer size as its definite chamber music quality (witness the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde for example). In places, Carpenter thickened the orchestration so much (another thing Mahler was great at doing was his clarity of orchestration) that one struggled to find the true voice within it all. One place where this was undermined was the use of heavy percussion in the chorale section, the climax of this great movement, so masterly orchestrated originally. The famous dissonant chord with nine tones failed to make its impact, with the trumpet wimpish over the orchestra and the shrieks from the violins after virtually unheard because of the added orchestration.

It would be difficult and fruitless from here on to list the differences between the Cooke and the Carpenter versions, but listening to both side-by-side, I think the Carpenter version is so brash in its excesses as to be mistaken, where as the Cooke is in parts not daring enough where it comes to inventing counterpoint that Mahler would undoubtedly have come up with had he completed the symphony. To me, Cooke at least shows an understanding of the way Mahler worked.

The first Scherzo, a movement incorporating many changes in time signature, was where rough edges began to show in the ensemble. The opening flourish, with its copious tympani, may have been reminiscent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, but it was also seemed more influenced by Shostakovich. I thought the Trio (Laendler) section wasn’t adequately characterized, without the grace it could have achieved, while horns holding their last high note toward the end was a nice touch.

The Purgatorio was again touched up by Carpenter with a Shostakovichian eeriness. Here he added muted trumpets, as well as a solo bassoon – a nice touch, with the coda disappearing in a ghostliness that seemed right out of the Russian composer’s second cello concerto.

The second Scherzo was for me the least successful in this performance, the orchestra not having lived the music long enough, perhaps, but the lion’s share of the blame lay firmly with the thick, overscored orchestration – a constant assault which made it a chore to listen to. Carpenter’s fascination with percussion and brass again threw into relief the restraint with which Cooke completed his version, and its clear inferiority. Lan Shui’s command of orchestral balance wasn’t in clear evidence in this thick forest of notes.

It’s interesting here that the order of the movements wasn’t clear even to Mahler himself, who kept changing the titles of the Scherzos, ending up with the current order that Cooke discerned from his manuscript. Since the content of the fourth and fifth movements follows the third, Purgatorio, the shortest movement is the heart of the symphony, but it is the development of the themes that exist in the movement, and the psychological narrative of the symphony from the Adagio to the Finale, the way that the movements make sense in the whole that is most important.

Other than the Adagio, the epic Finale is the movement which Lan Shui seems to have put the most thought into, and his tempo choices and musical rhetoric here proved rewarding, compared with the other central movements. Though I felt the orchestration again somewhat un-Mahlerian, there were touches where Carpenter used motifs from other symphonies, for example, a divided note motif that opens the Seventh Symphony, that seemed quite plausible.

Unfortunately because the impact of that malicious, evil first nine-note chord in the first movement had been blunted, the recurrence of this section in the Finale didn’t entirely make its impact either. The chamber music sections suffered again from some balance issues, but the eventual sweep of Mahler as he brings in his final transcendence and rejection of Death was undeniably moving and cathartic. It all seemed to be going well, but for one final disappointment. The final, huge glissando – one of Mahler’s last gestures, and what many consider his final sigh was hardly heard. Mahler was always very clear about his glissandi and while their omissions many times in the Adagio may have been forgiveable, I find it hard to understand why Lan Shui allowed this.

I think there is a successful Mahler 10 hidden deep in the SSO’s performance with Lan Shui, but it really needs a lot of work and thought. I’m still not entirely convinced that Mahler’s final thoughts were all set down on paper and I think he might have possibly excised a movement or two had he lived to complete and perform it. What I am convinced of is that the Carpenter version is not the version to subscribe to. Too brash, too “American” perhaps, it is still the Cooke version I will listen to when I want to listen to what I think Mahler’s final thoughts were.

All that’s left is to mention is Renaud Capucon’s performance of the Mendelssohn E minor concerto that preceded that symphony. Unashamedly middle-of-the-road and unoffensive, it was also rather dull in its uniformity and routine. The best thing about Capucon’s Mendelssohn at the moment is that gorgeous tone that he managed to coax out of his ex-Isaac Stern Guarneri del Gesu Violin – a lovely instrument that he played without a single ugly note. Despite what seemed to be some involvement onstage with the orchestra, Capucon’s performance, in comparison with the greats – Menuhin (with Furtwangler), Milstein (with Leo Barzin) and the live Heifetz with Toscanini for me are three performances I wouldn’t want to be without – has surface sheen but doesn’t by any means even try to delve below the notes. With his impeccable technique, there’s so much more that he could achieve. Hopefully we’ll hear him in a few years in a work that will better display his love for the music.

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