Vasily Petrenko’s Bleak but Compelling Vision of Mahler’s Tenth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Mahler: Till Fellner (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.5.2015. (JPr)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K.595
Mahler – Symphony No.10 (compl. Cooke et al.)

On the final day of an interminable UK election campaign when it looked likely that weeks of political wrangling would follow – a threat that fortunately never materialised – this concert of a last piano concerto and a last symphony seemed entirely appropriate.

As is well known, Mozart’s last years mirrored those of many whose star has shone brightly for a while but then dimmed and he was ill and penniless but still composing and playing the piano. Wendy Thompson’s informative programme note mentioned that ‘K.595 was performed just once in Mozart’s lifetime, at a benefit concert on 4 March 1791 … It proved to be Mozart’s last public appearance as a soloist. Shortly afterwards he sold the score to the publisher Artaria, who issued it that summer – one of Mozart’s few piano concertos to be published before his death in December.’

Intriguingly she later went on to add that the composer ‘supplied cadenzas for the last two movements, an unusual feature for the last concertos and one which, together with this concerto’s notable lack of virtuoso display, has led some scholars to conjecture that it might have been intended for a pupil.’ Although it was apparently scored for ‘intimate forces’ a fairly large-sized orchestra eloquently conversed – in the composer’s typical fashion – with Austrian pianist Till Fellner. It was my first hearing of this fairly straightforward work that I suspect holds no significant terrors for the soloist and some of the scurrying runs do at times suggest piano exercises. By writing this I do not in any way wish to diminish the work that clearly has Mozart saying goodbye. There is at first his railing against fate in the more agitated Allegro but this gives way to greater reflection and reminisce in the Larghetto before a more cheerful resignation take over during the charming song-like rondo finale. The concerto does not call for bravura virtuosity and Fellner’s performance was admirably restrained. It was a no nonsense and elegant account and he performed with crystalline clarity that admirably brought out the wistful elements in the music.

When I last heard Deryck Cooke’s ‘performing version’ of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony I wrote how successive hearings caused me some concern and how I had never yet got to love it as much as his other works. Now, after Vasily Petrenko sombrely dedicated what we would hear to his mother who had recently died I have had a change of heart. Whether it was the context of this performance or simply the quality of what followed – it made me totally agree with the words of Alma Mahler when she first heard a recording of it … ‘there was so much Mahler in it.’

According to Julian Johnson’s programme note he suggests that at Mahler’s death in 1911 ‘the orchestration for the first movement was essentially complete, the others are largely sketched on just a few staves, with little indication of orchestration’ and it was fascinating to read that ‘Though Alma kept the sketches to herself, she intrigued visitors by displaying a single page on the wall of her living room in Vienna, and even took to giving pages away as thank-you gifts.’  Any completion or ‘performing version’ becomes sheer guess work and the end result must be different from what Mahler would have left us to hear had he finished the orchestration himself. It was clear that, as played like this, the version by Deryck Cooke, Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin and David Matthews has done Mahler proud considering the material Mahler left us.

Nevertheless their achievement needs a masterful Mahler conductor and an orchestra with his music in their blood which is exactly what they got here with Vasily Petrenko (chief conductor of both the Oslo and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras) and the Philharmonia. This ‘performing version’ may not however be the only answer and because the world needs as much of Mahler’s music as possible, it might be worth giving an outing to the attempts of others, such as, Remo Mazzetti Jr, Joseph Wheeler or Clinton Carpenter to see if they have anything different to say to us. Mahler had a penchant for making significant revisions once all the notes were written down and the best we say about any of these versions of the Tenth is that they will represent his thoughts at the earliest stage of its composition.

The Tenth Symphony was composed in highly unusual circumstances because although Mahler was at the height of his powers his personal life was in disarray as Alma had begun an affair with the architect Walter Gropius. Mahler interrupted work on it to consult Sigmund Freud and to conduct in Munich the successful première of his Eighth Symphony, which he dedicated to Alma in a somewhat vain attempt at a rapprochement. Mahler’s despairing state of mind found expression in the comments (many addressed to Alma) written on the manuscript of the Tenth, and must have influenced its composition. On the final page in the short score of the final movement, Mahler wrote, ‘für dich leben! für dich sterben!’ (To live for you! To die for you!) and the exclamation ‘Almschi!’ beneath the last soaring phrase. This would bring the autobiographical nature of the symphony almost full circle because Julian Johnson suggests how during the opening Adagio ‘Out of nowhere, a vast abyss breaks open (in music’s darkest key of A flat minor). Then a single pitch (an ‘A’ – for Alma?) is sustained for what seems an eternity.’

What was Mahler hoping to tell us with his final work? From the beginning there is considerable emotional anguish that Petrenko obviously dwelt on in an elegiac account that lasted about 10 minutes longer than its advertised 74-minute timing. There are some brief brighter moments in the quixotic first scherzo, and the work ends by evincing serenity … or is it simply resignation? The cumulative bleakness of what we heard left me in no doubt that it was the latter that was most appropriate. What surprised me most from this account of the Tenth was how homogenous it all sounded.

There were many outstanding solo contributions from the players of the Philharmonia Orchestra who together know how to produce a heartwrenching Mahler sound, which they did here unstintingly. Vasily Petrenko did not fail to highlight the conflict between Mahler’s deeper anxieties and what seems to be his more lucid and optimistic moments during the three middle movements. However, the somewhat schizophrenic second Scherzo seems to run out of steam and at the close there is only bass clarinet, double basses and percussion before the ruminative atmosphere is brutally shattered by the single stroke of a bass drum inspired by a recent funeral of a firefighter in New York. For Alma ‘You alone know what it means’ was written at that point in the score. All the subsequent individual blows of the bass drum were a grimly visceral experience!

As with the opening Adagio, the Finale inexorably builds to a dissonant climax before a serene – albeit unsettling calm – takes over. Throughout the brass produced the composer’s often bitter brass chordal punctuations with startling impact and the strings had a burnished warmth, surpassing themselves in the symphony’s closing bars. It was one of the rare occasions in the Royal Festival Hall that you could hear a pin drop – although in the circumstances the conductor might have halted the deserved ovation for a little longer than he did.


Jim Pritchard


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