Mahler’s 10th: Not Perfect Enough For Mahler Himself

United StatesUnited States  Mahler, Symphony No. 10 (Performing Version “Cooke III”): New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor), Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City, 1.12.2011 (SSM)

Daniel Harding, photo © Harald Hoffman

So much has been said and written about Mahler’s unfinished symphony and its completion by various parties that I won’t add to the catalogue. A history of both the symphony and its recordings can be found on our parent site, MusicWeb International, at the following location: Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. If the size of that discography seems excessively long (almost 10,000 words), think what its length would be if it included every recording made since the article’s publication in 2000.

The decision to complete a work left unfinished at a composer’s death should be based on knowledge of the composer’s intentions and relationship to the score. Undoubtedly, had Mahler lived longer he would have completed this symphony. We don’t know exactly why Schubert did not complete his “unfinished” symphony, but we do know he lived on for another seven years. No one has completed that score in a way convincing enough to serve as the standard performing edition (as opposed to, say, Franz Xaver Süssmayr whose completion of Mozart’s Requiem is generally considered definitive). Some works are left unfinished because the composers felt there was no chance of them ever being performed. And then there is Scriabin’s Mysterium, which has its own set of problems: the composer’s instructions require the symphony to be played for seven days when, upon completion, the world will end and start up again with a race of supermen.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.10,
D.Harding / Vienna Philharmonic

Daniel Harding has made Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 his signature work, and recorded it to rave reviews on the Deutsche Grammophon label. His performance here, while not quite on the level of his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, revealed a vision of the work that would seem to be beyond the ken of someone so young. Like all Mahler, the 10th requires a conductor with enough self-assurance to harness the massive resources needed to successfully tame the beast. This job is made even more difficult since so much of the music is ersatz Mahler. It’s a major accomplishment to present a coherent performance of the two movements assumed to be nearly finished before his death, the first and the third. The second and fourth movements, which are relatively short by Mahler’s standards, are less problematic because of their simpler structure. But the fifth movement, which is about as long as the previous three movements combined, is a real challenge.

Did Harding convince us in this final movement that we were listening to anything reasonably close to what Mahler had intended, or for that matter to music that could be considered a great work of art? Would this movement, if it were not associated with Mahler, stand on its own? I think not. Was this at least listenable? Yes, it was colorfully orchestrated, with a few brief turns where you could hear the distant echoes of the composer and even of other composers such as Bruckner.

Mr. Harding and the New York Philharmonic made a valiant attempt to stamp Mahler’s name on every note played, but the final judgment was made by Mahler himself when he wrote, “All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish.”

Stan Metzger