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Berliner Philharmoniker

Friday, November 16, 2007 at 8 PM

By Paul Griffiths

The Concert
At a Glance

Mahler’s Tenth is one of the great unfinished symphonies—a work the composer completed in draft but did not live to develop in detail. Tonight’s performing version, largely the work of the British Mahlerian Deryck Cooke, allows us to contemplate this mighty might-have-been. Sir Simon Rattle has been its greatest champion, introducing it to the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and recording it with them three years later. New music, too, has always been high on Rattle’s agenda, and tonight he includes a massive memorial by György Kurtág, a work that, like those by Lindberg and Adès heard earlier this week, was written for this orchestra.

Notes on the Program


Born February 19, 1926, in Lugoj, Romania.

Composed in 1994, Stele received its world premiere in Berlin with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Claudio Abbado. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on April 21, 1999, with the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra Freiburg conducted by Michael Gielen.

Kurtág wrote this work during a two-year residency he held with the Berliner Philharmoniker—a curious appointment, in a sense, for he had written nothing for orchestra since a student viola concerto of four decades before. But after only a year in Berlin, an astonishingly brief period by his painstaking standards, he produced one of the most powerful orchestral scores of recent times.

No doubt his attendance at performances and rehearsals in Berlin provided stimulus, but he also came prepared. Steadily, through a quarter of a century, he had approached the orchestra by way of remnants (the reduced ensembles he had used in several song cycles of the 1970s) and scatterings, as in more recent works such as … quasi una fantasia … for piano and groups of instruments (1987–88) or What Is the Word? for a female vocalist and piano echoed by groups of singers and instrumentalists around the hall (1991). Even so, it was a big step to the conventional apparatus of Stele, comprising a Brucknerian complement with a quartet of Wagner tubas, to which Kurtág adds only a characteristic tuned percussion group: cimbalom, piano and upright piano, celesta, vibraphone and marimba.

Nothing is conventional in the work’s sound or in the potency of its expressive gestures. A stele is a slab or pillar inscribed as a memorial: a gravestone. Kurtág’s work is a three-movement symphonie funèbre. The opening is in bold octave Gs, which through slow glissandos and vibratos weep away from confidence; the rest of the Adagio—which could be regarded as a slow introduction—is made of frail offerings from different parts of the orchestra, with the lamenting image of a falling minor second ubiquitous. The second movement develops a fierce snarling into immense sonorities, and the finale—based on a piano piece of September 1993 written in memory of András Mihály, a composer and conductor who was a generous friend to Kurtág, as to many colleagues—recalls the music for the lake of tears in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Through repetitions of a liquid musical event, the work steps slowly on while keeping its gaze, always and unremittingly, in one place.

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GUSTAV MAHLER Symphony No. 10 (performing score by Deryck Cooke)

Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt (Kalištĕ), Bohemia; died May 18, 1911, in Vienna.

Composed in 1910, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was first presented in only two movements, the first and third, in Vienna on October 10, 1924, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Franz Schalk. The first performance of Deryck Cooke’s performing score of the entire symphony took place in London on August 13, 1964, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Berthold Goldschmidt.

The New York premiere of the first and third movements of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 took place at Carnegie Hall on March 13, 1958, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. The New York Premiere of Deryck Cooke’s performing score took place on November 16, 1965, with The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Mahler did not intend the long-drawn-out farewell at the end of his Ninth Symphony to be his last word. He did, however, have fears that it might be. Beethoven had left just nine symphonies; Bruckner had died with his ninth still in train. There seemed to be some force preventing composers from exceeding this magic number, which was why Mahler devised a subterfuge. Das Lied von der Erde, bearing no number, was really his ninth symphony, and No. 9 was really his tenth. Having thus escaped the ban, he could go forward to No.10, his eleventh symphony.

And go forward he did. In 1910, he spent his summer vacation at Toblach, in the Dolomites, working on a new symphonic composition, just as he had the two years previously. By the time he left, in early September, he had a complete draft in his baggage: his Symphony No. 10. Now, though, he had only eight and a half months to live, and he was able to orchestrate no more than the first movement and part of the third. The rest waited in outline form, on four musical staves.

So it remained until 1924, when Mahler’s widow, Alma, asked her newly acquired son-in-law Ernst Krenek to look at the material. He determined that the first movement was essentially finished, and that the third could be, on the basis of the composer’s beginning; but he declined to touch the rest. The two movements he felt able to complete were duly performed and published, and there the story rested until the 1940s, when the Canadian Mahler expert Jack Diether prompted efforts to interest Schoenberg or Shostakovich in the task of completing the score. Neither would do so.

However, Alma had published the draft and so made it available to anyone eager to give sounding form to Mahler’s final work. First to do so was Clinton Carpenter, working in the US in the 1940s; after him came two British Mahlerians: Joe Wheeler (encouraged by Diether) and Deryck Cooke. Parts of Cooke’s attempt—including, for the first time, the finale—were recorded by the BBC for a documentary aired in the Mahler centenary year of 1960, whereupon Alma placed an embargo on performances. Fortunately, in 1963 she was persuaded to listen to the BBC tape, which made her change her mind, enabling a full performance to be presented the next year.

Since then, other realizations have been heard and recorded, but Cooke’s—which he revised with the help of two young composers, the brothers David and Colin Matthews—has been favored by most conductors (except those who, like Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, have been reluctant to go beyond the one movement Mahler left pretty much in finished form). As Cooke took pains to note, his score is not a completion, which only Mahler could have achieved, but rather “a performing version of Mahler’s draft.” If it has patches that sound bare and perhaps others where the continuity is confusing, that is because it is true to the state of the material. More abundantly, whether it is richly expressive, bizarre, or downright scary, it speaks with the voice of Mahler.

That voice was ever strained, but particularly so during the summer of this symphony’s composition, when Alma Mahler had an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius (whom she was to marry in 1915, following a high-profile, high-temperature fling with the painter Oskar Kokoschka). Mahler, desperate at the thought of losing her, traveled to Leiden, in Holland, for a consultation with Freud, and the marriage was put back on its feet. Meanwhile, the composer wrote his anxiety into his music—quite literally in the finale, where the draft includes written comments, even suggesting that the orchestral music at some points cries out the name “Almschi!”

In certain respects, the Tenth picks up where the Ninth left off, for it starts with a big slow movement—though one in phases of growth rather than gradual dissolve. At the outset, violas alone seem to be searching for the main music, which arrives as a glorious, reflective adagio. But this soon turns into a dance and falls apart, leaving the violas to begin again. The whole process is repeated, each time over a greater span, until, third time round, the adagio is in open conflict with its delinquent derivatives. Tension rises to a climax of colossal dissonance (Mahler was well aware of Schoenberg’s venture into atonality), from which the music can only subside.

It took Mahler some time to decide the order of the other parts, his eventual plan producing a symmetry, with big slow movements first and last, a short, odd movement in the middle, and scherzos in second and fourth place. The first scherzo has several ideas that keep pushing each other aside, necessitating frequent quick changes of time signature. In the middle, a gentler trio recalls the adagio, whose whole substance—of passionate lyricism countered by and countering dance, of disintegration barely escaped—is continued here in a different mode. By the end, though, the feeling is perhaps more positive.

What can be said of the feeling of the central movement, which keeps one quirky little idea in its whirling mind? Mahler’s Dantean title is enigmatic.

The second scherzo contrasts with the first in its more consistent dancing rhythms and in its expressive curve. Now tones of exuberance and gaiety are progressively overshadowed, in preparation for the opening of the finale.

This final movement—which lasts, like the opening Adagio, for about 25 minutes—is a protracted effort to reach affirmation and repose in the face of negation. Negation comes from atmospheres of despair and night that belong to this movement, and also from memories crowding into it from earlier in the work: perky ideas from the interior movements and, at the centerpoint, music from the Adagio. This burst from the past clears the ground. Then we hear how the symphony was to end, with the music of peace.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Paul Griffiths is the author of numerous books on music, including The New Penguin Dictionary of Music and, most recently, A Concise History of Western Music (Cambridge University Press).

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation