MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 ("A performing version of Mahler's draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews")
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle/cond.

EMI 56972 [F] [DDD]  TT:77:26 

Sir Simon's second recording of the "Mahler Tenth," as it has come to be known world- wide, was culled from performances in the Neue Philharmonie at Berlin on September 24-25, 1999—his first there since the announcement that he would succeed Claudio Abbado as music director of Germany's premiere orchestra. An all-Brit technical team took charge, producer Stephen Johns and engineer Mike Clements, who used B&W loudspeakers to monitor their progress. And technical progress it certainly is: the oddly canned sound that Deutsche Grammophon has favored ever since the Philharmonie was completed, even in the most spectacular productions, has been circumvented by EMI's team (which heretofore favored the old Jesus Christus Kirche as its Berlin venue-of-choice, despite the intrusive sound of planes into and out of Tempelhof Airport.

Mind you, one doesn't hear the amplitude of sound that EMI captured in the new hall at Birmingham that Sir Simon is leaving. Or even sound like the best from Abbey Road's Studio 1. But it is solid, locale-specific, and beautifully detailed in all but the most complex climaxes (multi-miking perhaps, plus some post-facto mixing). The orchestra for its part plays with all the finesse and none of the anomalies heard in past: tonally it is a thoroughly homogenized orchestra, with only a trace of a whinny from the oboes. Thanks to Abbado's stewardship, it remains a globally ranking ensemble if not as individualized as bygone peer orchestras: Ormandy's Philadelphia, Koussevitzky's Boston, Reiner's Chicago, this same Philharmoniker under Karajan from 1955 until his death, or the Vienna Philharmonic under conductors the players like and respect. Truth to tell, the current Berlin reminds me of the Cleveland under Szell, without sounding as over-rehearsed.

Now, about the edition of Mahler's extended but incomplete sketches for a five-movement symphony. We used to speak of Deryck Cooke's versions I (introduced at London in 1964 with Berthold Goldschmidt conducting) and II (which was recorded by Wyn Morris in England, and by James Levine for RCA with the Philadelphia, which I reviewed for Fanfare in the early '80s, if an aging memory and three recent doses of anesthesia can be trusted). I don't know Eliahu Inbal's version of Cooke-II on Denon -- currently Rattle's only competition except for Sir Simon's own 1980 Bournemouth recording, which Schwann/Opus lists as "slightly revised" by him. This new one bears the legend printed in the headnote, but poring over a lot of literature I find that the two Matthews brothers—whom the late Cooke credited, along with Goldschmidt, in his superbly concise An Introduction to [Mahler's] Music (Cambridge soft-cover)—have done retouching since Cooke's death in 1976, some of which is overkill.

My generation learned the music from Ormandy's recording of Cooke I for CBS, which had an expressive eloquence I've found missing in subsequent versions, although Jean Martinon's concert performance at Chicago in 1966 was deeply moving (but not the repetition two seasons later, when he had rethought and revised details without improving on the thrill of discovery, so to speak). Rattle's Berlin performance of the fast movements misses Ormandy's forthright, spontaneous, indeed reverential approach to the music. He can become fussy in the middle movements and consequently stilted, lest some picayune detail escape the listener's attention, especially in the two scherzi. My ears don't hear often enough what London's The Sunday Times wrote about the concert, as "...perhaps the most significant in the history of Cooke's performing version of Mahler's Unfinished Symphony, since the Berlin Philharmonic will be certainly the most high-profile orchestra in the world to have recorded the 10th with a front-rank conductor.... It was a performance of such high drama and emotional intensity that Cooke's work seemed more Mahlerian than ever."

Exc-u-u-se me! as Joan Rivers used to say before shoving a finger down her throat. Brit critics'  blatant propagandizing continues untamed, and this kind of hyperbole, this unadulterated boosterism, is dispiriting in The Sunday bloody-Times. As I have listened and relistened, it is a misleading except in the final movement, where Sir Simon lets his wind soloists and upper strings sing rapturously, none more so than Berlin's superlative solo flute.

R.D. (July 2000)