Getting the most from Mahler



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday

One of the great "What ifs?" in musical history is "What if Gustav Mahler did not die prematurely at the age of 51 in 1911?"

His nine completed symphonies represented the last ebbing breath of Romanticism as music headed into an uncertain future represented by Second Viennese School atonalism and Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring of 1913. His Tenth Symphony was left unfinished with only the opening Adagio movement fully scored.

Yet in that Adagio, Mahler was already moving in new and different directions. Many have attempted to complete the work based on his short score, sketches and inscribed notes, but it is British musicologist Deryck Cooke's performing version that is most often performed.

Last Saturday evening, Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard helmed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in its local premiere.

Local Mahlerites will remember Shui Lan leading the Clinton Carpenter version of the Tenth in 2009, a far denser and more opulent work than Cooke's.

Other than the Adagio, neither is true Mahler, but the world is poorer for not having a glimpse of what the Bohemian composer had envisaged before his untimely demise.

Under Dausgaard, whose animated movements on the podium resembled a ballet, the Adagio was given broad and expansive vistas to unfold.

One could hear a pin drop when violas opened accounts with an evenness of sonority that was hard to match.

It was a little discomfiting for the brass in the initial entries but it got better very quickly, settling down to a superb performance that highlighted Mahler's obsession with sound.

How more adventurous and dissonant he had become was represented by that screaming nine-note chord with Jon Paul Dante's trumpet hitting the high A and holding on with fully bared talons.

That moment was reached with a gradual build-up that was just breathtaking. The three fast middle movements took the form of two Scherzos sandwiching the brief but grotesque Purgatorio.

Cooke's lighter orchestration meant that it was more easy-going on the ears than the Carpenter version. The Scherzos were contrasting, a bucolic and somewhat ungainly country dance facing off with a more urbane and sinister Viennese waltz.

These represented Mahler's past lives and in between, harbingers of death where the chirping woodwinds and murmuring brass shone.

The most moving pages came in the finale, a funeral procession turned into a sublime declaration of love from the composer to his estranged wife.

Mark Suter's earth-shaking bass drum thuds and Hidehiro Fujita's tuba grabbed the listener by the lapels, but it was Jin Ta's silvery flute solo that soothed the nerves.

In the development, concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich and viola principal Zhang Manchin's fine solos paved the way to the inevitable reprise of the Adagio's primal scream.

This time around, the earlier agonising had dissipated, replaced by a fuzzy warmth from the lovely strings that permeated all through to the final note.

The half-minute's silence that lapsed before the storm of applause that erupted was just as satisfying. With this show of appreciation and maturity, the audience that braved the haze to attend this one-work- only concert had clearly caught the message.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline Getting the most from Mahler. Subscribe