Mahler’s Tenth: Captivating Serenity, Convulsed with Shockwaves

United StatesUnited States Mahler: National Symphony Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (conductor), Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC. 1.3.2018. (RRR)

Mahler – Symphony No.10

The last time the National Symphony Orchestra essayed Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (in Deryck Cooke’s completion) was in 1986. Apparently, the word has not spread since then, for the concert hall at the Kennedy Center was half empty on the evening of 1 March, the first of three performances. In fact, the house was the emptiest I have ever seen. Mahler cannot have been the reason, because previously the hall was full, most recently for his Second Symphony. Perhaps the threatening weather, combined with the relative obscurity of the Tenth, kept the the audience away. It was their loss.

The casual concertgoer most likely has not heard of the Tenth because it did not exist in its current form until 1972. Mahler died in 1911 before he could complete it, though he had sketched all five movements. He only fully orchestrated the opening Adagio, and this movement usually appears by itself when any portion of the Tenth is performed. Deryck Cooke, with the assistance of composers Colin and David Matthews, labored for some years to render a complete performance version. It was well worth the painstaking effort. According to David Matthews, ‘The thematic line throughout, and something like 90 percent of the counterpoint and harmony, are pure Mahler, and vintage Mahler at that.’ The result is sufficiently convincing in its entirety that I cannot imagine anyone faintly interested in Mahler’s music not being anxious to hear it. In the 10-minute pep talk that Runnicles gave before the concert, he expressed a similar opinion.

Twenty-five minutes long, the Adagio seems to pick up from the Ninth Symphony’s closing Adagio finale. Some conductors who have done stand-alone recordings of this movement have aimed at a mesmerizing rendition that reinforces this view. Runnicles, however, seemed more interested in the Adagio’s vital élan, if that does not sound too self-contradictory. He did not stint on the delicate pianissimo moments in the strings, but the general impression was one of surging life – until about 15 minutes in, when catastrophe strikes. Preceding moments of harmonic uneasiness served as a warning, but nothing prepares listeners for the bloodletting by the slashing, dissonant nine-note chords. In a display of gorgeous playing by the NSO, relief came as the strings resumed and softly brought the movement to a close.

Two shorter Scherzos and an intervening Allegretto followed, all of which were highly mercurial in their shifting character and meters – challenges which Runnicles and the NSO ably met.

At the beginning of the last movement, the unmerciful strokes on the bass drum and the deep-throated gurgles in the tuba convey devastation in so complete a way that little else in Mahler approaches it – or really any other composer, at least as captured by Runnicles and his players. In some recordings, these moments are played at a lower volume, relative to the rest of the orchestra, and could be Mahler’s recollection of the funeral cortège he witnessed in New York, as they are often explained to be. Runnicles, however, highlighted these electrifying moments to reveal a man struck by his own impending death.

There is a good deal in this symphony that passes for conventional Mahler, i.e. not out of the ordinary from the nine that preceded it. However, new things create the unforgettable impression of listening to the inner life of a dying man. It is said of the dying that many things flash before their eyes from earlier stages of life. Such is the case here, as so many moments are at the edge of reprising his previous thoughts. Though that never happens, the composer seesaws between moments of intoxicating beauty and others of calamitous distress. Runnicles kept the drama from these contending strains alive, revealing their inner life. In this way, the Tenth may be the most kaleidoscopic of all Mahler’s works. Islands of captivating serenity are soon convulsed with shockwaves. What will have the final word? Musicologist Michael Kennedy called the final words – beauty and heartbreaking tenderness – an act of ‘spiritual courage’. In the closing pianissimo strings there is a sense of finally letting go, of Mahler laying himself to rest.

Opening-night jitters caused occasional imprecision and a few flubs in the brass, but the playing across all of the orchestra’s departments was very fine, with the strings as a special stand-out. Through their sense of complete conviction in this rarely heard work, Runnicles and the NSO left an indelible impression.

Robert R. Reilly

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