Nicholas Collon Joins the List of Champions for Mahler’s Tenth Symphony

01/04/2016

Webern, Brahms, Mahler: CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 31.3.2016 (JQ)

Webern – Six Pieces, Op. 6 (chamber version of 1920)
Brahms Four Songs, Op. 17, for women’s voices, two horns and harp
Mahler – Symphony No. 10 in F sharp (performing version by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews)

This was a strangely constructed programme. If memory serves me correctly, when the concert was first announced only the Mahler symphony was mentioned. Presumably to make a fuller evening the Webern and Brahms items were added and together the chosen pieces made a generous programme. There may well be factors which link the three items together but I have to say that any such links eluded me.

Webern’s Six Pieces were presented in the second of their three incarnations – there’s also the full orchestral score of 1909 and a reduced, simplified orchestration that dates from 1928. The 1920 version was made to facilitate performance at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. The scoring is for 5 strings, three woodwind, harmonium, piano and 3 or 4 percussionists.  I should come clean at once and say that this is music that does nothing for me. I’ve tried many times to come to terms with the music of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern and, apart from some of their earliest works, I fail completely to understand it, still less to be emotionally engaged by it. I’m sure that’s a failing on my part. So far as I could judge tonight’s performance was a very good one, played expertly by Collon and his small ensemble. The delicate textures that predominate in the first piece were very successfully realised. The second piece is the only one in a fast tempo but the clarity of both the playing and the acoustic of Symphony Hall meant that plentiful amounts of detail registered. The piece that made the strongest impression on me was the fourth. Here the mysterious, soft sounds of the percussion at the start – and, indeed, the percussion contribution throughout the piece – gripped my attention. It seemed to me that the whole work benefitted from refined, detailed playing.

Brahms wrote his Four Songs, Op 17 in 1859/60 for the Hamburg Women’s Chorus of which he was the founding conductor. The title is quite explicit; the songs are for women’s voices and I have never heard them sung except by adult singers. However, though the songs are designed for adults there was nothing immature about this performance by the young voices of the CBSO Youth Chorus. Indeed, it was a positive pleasure to hear the songs delivered with the freshness of tone that these youthful musicians brought to the music. Their singing was winning and there was an innocence in, for example, the second song, ‘Lied von Shakespeare’ that was quite delightful.  The songs are quite serious in tone and I felt that the CBSO Youth Chorus engaged with the sentiments very well. The last song, ‘Gesang aus Fingal’ is the longest and, arguably, the deepest and the choir sang it with excellent expression. This is not easy music, especially for young singers, but the choir had clearly been scrupulously prepared by Julian Wilkins, and they acquitted themselves with distinction; I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. The accompaniment is unusual but it worked extremely well thanks to the skill of the three CBSO members involved.

The Webern and Brahms items offered us music on a small, even intimate scale. Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, by contrast, is a huge work. It was so nearly one of music’s great “might-have-beens” because Mahler left it in an incomplete state at his death.  The five movements were in different states of completeness. The long first movement was left in draft full score and part of the short third movement was in a similar state with the rest of the movement left in short score with lots of clues as to orchestration. These two movements – the opening Adagio, especially – were performed from time to time after Ernst Krenek prepared them for performance in the 1920s at the request of Alma Mahler. The other three movements existed only in short score or sketch form though a crucial point is that the actual music of the symphony, from beginning to end, had been composed by Mahler prior to his death.

Deryck Cooke undertook the task of trying to make it possible to perform Mahler’s last symphony as part of the BBC’s celebration of the composer’s centenary in 1960 and on 19 December 1960 he gave a broadcast talk, lasting for some 35 minutes, in which he explained how he had gone about his work. This talk included many musical illustrations, some played on the piano by Cooke and others illustrated by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Cooke’s collaborator, Berthold Goldschmidt. Immediately after Cooke’s talk Goldschmidt and the orchestra performed all the material that Cooke had managed to render performable, some 66 minutes of music. After initial opposition, Alma Mahler sanctioned further work by Cooke – and performances – and at the 1964 Proms Goldschmidt and the LSO unveiled the final revised performing version by Cooke, which he had compiled with further assistance from Goldschmidt and also from the Matthews brothers.

A few years ago Testament Records issued the December 1960 broadcast and the 1964 Proms performance on CD (Testament SBT3 1457). To prepare for hearing tonight’s performance I listened again to the 1960 broadcast and a couple of things struck me. The first was a renewed feeling of great admiration and gratitude for the work of Cooke and his collaborators. Their task in making Mahler’s material performable was herculean but, as tonight’s performance proved, without their dedication and skill we should all be the poorer. The second thought I had – and it was reinforced by hearing the CBSO’s performance – concerned the proficiency of orchestras then and now. It was noticeable that on 19 December 1960 Goldschmidt and the Philharmonia did a valiant and very skilful job but some things didn’t quite work; for example, some details of scoring came out in a rather confrontational manner. In part this reflects the further work that Cooke and co still had to do to refine the score but it also shows, I think, that in 1960 orchestral musicians were not as comfortable with and accustomed to the Mahler sound and idiom as compared to their present-day peers. The CBSO tonight presented this demanding score with great skill and assurance.

Sadly, many of the great conductors who led the Mahler “boom” of the 1960s and 1970s declined to conduct Cooke’s performing version. Conductors such as Bernstein, Haitink, Kubelik, Solti and Tennstedt either never performed the Tenth or else confined themselves to the first and third movements. As these are all such esteemed Maherians one must respect their feelings that Mahler’s score should be left as he left it, though I would have loved to hear Bernstein and Haitink in particular conduct Cooke’s performing version. Instead it’s been left to conductors of the present generation such as Daniel Harding, Mark Wigglesworth and, above all, Sir Simon Rattle to advance the cause of Cooke’s performing version. To that list of Cooke champions we can now, surely, add the name of Nicholas Collon.

One of the many achievements of Deryck Cooke’s work on the score of the Tenth was to enable us to think again about the music that Mahler was writing in his last years. I was struck by a comment in his 1960 talk: he said that with the knowledge of what was in the Tenth  Berthold Goldschmidt conducted the opening Adagio at a more flowing speed than had hitherto been the case when conductors had performed that movement in isolation. In other words – and here I paraphrase Cooke – Goldschmidt was able to see the movement not as a tragic finis to Mahler’s symphonic career but as the beginning of something new. It seemed to me that Nicholas Collon paced the long first movement very skilfully,  allowing Mahler’s bittersweet lines the necessary space to unfold without ever risking sentimentality.  He invested the music with no little feeling and appeared to get the emotional balance just right. The passages that seem faster – because there are more notes; the pulse doesn’t quicken much – were pithy and well defined. Already, it was clear that the CBSO was on very fine form. The very intense yet surprisingly brief climax was powerfully projected. Sadly, the intensity of the closing minutes of the movement was severely compromised for me and, I’m sure, for many other members of the audience, by a couple in the stalls who decided to leave while the performance was in progress – and did not do so quietly. I hope they had a very good excuse, such as illness, because their departure was a great distraction, as it must have been for the players also.

In the first scherzo Mahler constantly changes the time signature, giving the music a very unstable feel. Here the playing of the CBSO was incisive and displayed no little brilliance.  Collon handled the Ländler-like trio very well, using rubato very skilfully so that the music sounded very idiomatic. When the scherzo material reappeared he drove the movement to an exciting conclusion.

The short third movement, entitled ‘Purgatorio’ is a strange piece of writing. As I listened to the performance it seemed to me that the music offers echoes of the Seventh Symphony. Collon showed a fine feeling for Mahlerian style and he brought out the colours in the orchestration very vividly.

He took the second scherzo attacca. (In effect, since the finale also follows without a break, this meant that we heard the three movements that constitute Part II of the symphony as an unbroken span.) In some ways this fourth movement sounds to me the most Mahlerian of all – I’m thinking especially of the middle three symphonies and the Ninth. Here passages that require – and were given – real bite alternate with warm, sentimental music. The mood and colours of the music seems to be constantly changing – the former the responsibility of Mahler, the latter the product of Mahler’s invention as realised by Cooke’s orchestration. The CBSO played the movement with great virtuosity. The hushed coda, dominated by the percussion, was spookily effective.

If the end of the fourth movement was spooky then the beginning of the long finale was positively eerie; the dull bass drum thuds and doleful tuba distilled an atmosphere as baleful as even the start of the finale of the Sixth. And then, out of the darkness emerged the wonderfully tender flute melody, cushioned by soft violas and cellos. As voiced by the CBSO’s principal, Marie-Christine Zupancic, the melody was fragile yet soothing. Had Mahler’s sketches been left to gather dust we should have been deprived of this, arguably his most heart-stopping melody; what a loss that would have been. The consoling melody was then taken up and developed most beautifully by the violins. The paragraphs that followed were shaped with intensity and understanding by Collon and the CBSO responded to his leadership with wonderfully glowing playing.  Later, in the faster episodes there was urgency and bite from the orchestra but it’s for the heart-easing lyrical passages that I will long remember this performance.  The last few minutes of the movement seem suffused by acceptance and, perhaps, by a recollection of temps perdu. Collon conducted these closing pages with fine yet controlled intensity and was rewarded with luminous playing, especially from the strings and golden-toned horns. One last anguished outcry and then the symphony ends in tranquillity.

As I said earlier, many distinguished Mahler conductors have resisted performing this performing version by Deryck Cooke – or, indeed, the various versions by other hands. With all due deference, I have to say I think they are wrong. Cooke never made any pretence that what he had done was to “complete” Mahler’s score. Using highly informed conjecture and great musicianship he and his colleagues gave us a way – not the way – to hear the music that Mahler had composed. If we ignore the Tenth we surely have an incomplete picture of Mahler in his last years. If we embrace it, however, we expand and enrich our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential symphonists. This evening’s very fine performance demonstrated very clearly how rewarding an experience Mahler’s Tenth can be.

I left Symphony Hall full of admiration for the performance by Nicholas Collon and the CBSO. But above all I left full of gratitude to Deryck Cooke and his three collaborators. Through their dedicated work our Mahler horizon was expanded significantly.

John Quinn 

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Comments

Comments

  1. Barry Thomas says:

    Thanks for this wonderfully intelligent and erudite review. I was there and thought that the conducting and playing of the symphony were outstanding. I have learned a lot from your comments.

  2. Derek Hunt says:

    John,

    Your reviews are always informative and genuine.

    In this instance you have also done a great job of outlining the performance history of the work, the achievment of Deryck Cooke and his colleagues and the approach of many conductors. Thank you for a very helpful and engaging account.

    Kind regards, Derek

  3. John Quinn says:

    Thank you, Barry and Derek, for your generous comments. It’s nice – and reassuring – to receive positive feedback..

    I hope we shall see Nicholas Collon working with the CBSO again in the seasons to come. I’ve been to two concerts which he’s conducted with the orchestra during March – a wide range of repertoire – and he’s impressed me.

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