June 20, 2019
(++++) DARING GREATLY
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, with reconstructed Finale. Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Michelle Castelletti). Lapland Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
The one thing that can be absolutely, unequivocally stated as truth with regard to efforts to complete the final symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler is that every single attempt is wrong. That is to say that no matter how carefully, no matter with what attention to detail and style and academic/performance requirements and understanding a completion of Bruckner’s Ninth and Mahler’s Tenth may be made, it is 100% certain not to be what the composer himself would have done. Both these composers, throughout their lives and to a greater extent as those lives neared their ends, were pushing the boundaries of symphonic form, of harmony, of counterpoint, of musical structure itself, and both their incomplete final symphonies show them going even further in directions in which they had gone before. The chance that any existing sketches, drafts or partial forms of these symphonies would have led in the direction in which any well-meaning “completer” might take them is vanishingly small. But this in no way invalidates the attempt, because the alternative is to withhold these works from performance altogether (as Alma Mahler did with Mahler’s Tenth for a considerable time) or to perform only the portions of the symphonies that exist in finished or virtually finished form: the first three movements of the Bruckner and the first and third of the Mahler. Truncated performances have in fact been the norm for these works for decades, but while a three-movement Bruckner Ninth continues to be deemed acceptable by many conductors and listeners, the excerpted version of Mahler’s Tenth has long been deemed so unsatisfactory that great Mahler interpreters such as Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink refused to play the remains of this work at all.
The urge to completion of both these masterpieces – and make no mistake, they are masterpieces – has become increasingly strong in recent years. Among the thoughtful, careful and well-considered versions of the finale of the Bruckner are ones by William Carragan, Nicola Samale and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, Sébastien Letocart, Nors S. Josephson, Ernst Märzendorfer, Roberto Ferrazza and others. Some of these have been “re-completed” numerous times: Carragan’s 1983 completion has been revised four times, and the original Samale version, created with Giuseppe Mazzucca, exists in two versions – and then Samale and Mazzucca joined John A. Phillips and Cohrs to produce a third completion that itself exists in five different versions. It is all a bit bewildering, and would be frustrating to listeners if there were a “correct” version toward which everyone was striving. But there is not. And everybody who tries to produce a unified, coherent and performable Bruckner Ninth knows this. Certainly Gerd Schaller does. A Bruckner specialist and an absolutely top-notch conductor, Schaller created a meticulously crafted, thoroughly convincing and elegant, even beautiful version of the fourth movement of Bruckner’s Ninth in 2016, and offered it in a very fine recording of the symphony. Then he set to work to hone and change it, and the modified version, from 2018, is now available on a superb two-CD set from Profil – a live recording of a genuinely revelatory concert. Schaller is an amazingly erudite and skilled advocate of this symphony and his part in it, both as a conductor and verbally: his booklet notes, which explain and analyze the finale in very considerable detail, are easily the best discussion of this material ever offered to the general public. Schaller himself founded Philharmonie Festiva – a collection of top-notch musicians from various German orchestras – for the specific purpose of furthering his own musical explorations, and it is a splendid Bruckner orchestra with all the Germanic warmth that an audience could wish and all the sectional and individual skill that a conductor could desire. The details of what Schaller did and did not do in completing (and then re-completing)Bruckner’s Ninth are many and complex; they are also arguable, as are the details of any attempt to finish this work. But for the vast majority of listeners, what is going to matter is whether the Schaller/2018 version of the symphony a) sounds like Bruckner, b) holds together cohesively, and c) presents a conclusion that is in keeping with the first three movements and at the same time takes them to a higher plane. It does all these things, and does them surpassingly well: Schaller’s experience as a conductor is a major reason, since both his versions of the finale needed to take into account what Bruckner asked of musicians in the first three movements of the Ninth and in his earlier works, and what more he was likely to have asked of them in the completion of his final symphony. There are merits to all the attempted completions of Bruckner’s Ninth, and there are intriguing differences in the approaches underlying them – for instance, how much music from earlier in the symphony or from earlier symphonies to include in the finale, and how many of Bruckner’s numerous but ill-assorted manuscript pages should be included and how many should be discarded as early drafts or as incompatible with other pages. These are matters for scholars and conductors, though, and not, by and large, for listeners. Schaller is both a scholar and a conductor, and as such has created an exceptionally well-crafted, wholly convincing finale to Bruckner’s Ninth that results in an entirely satisfactory and emotionally trenchant conclusion, as uplifting as anything that Bruckner himself lived to complete. The fact that what Schaller has done is incontrovertibly wrong is, in terms of the impact of the music, pretty much irrelevant.
Michelle Castelletti is also both conductor and scholar, although she is not the conductor of her version of Mahler’s Tenth that is heard on a new SACD from BIS. That is something of a shame, because John Storgårds is not a very idiomatic Mahler conductor, and it is hard to tell whether the recording would have been more effective with Castelletti at the helm of the orchestra. It is effective, and in some rather surprising ways, but whether it could have been more so is difficult to determine. What makes this issue even more complex than that of “merely” completing Mahler’s Tenth is that Castelletti not only creates a performing version but also turns the symphony into the sort of chamber work that could have been performed at one of Schoenberg’s famous but short-lived Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen concerts – places where, from 1919 to 1921, then-modern, then-forward-looking music was offered in chamber arrangements made by Schoenberg himself or by one of his disciples. Mahler’s music was heard in these concerts – in fact, Das Lied von der Erde was arranged by Schoenberg himself – so there is some fascinating history behind what Castelletti does with Mahler’s Tenth. And Mahler’s handling of the symphony orchestra makes his works peculiarly susceptible to chamber arrangements, since Mahler – one of the greatest conductors of his time – wrote for very large orchestra for the express purpose of utilizing the sound of parts of the ensemble through much of his work, reserving the gigantic full-orchestra pronouncements for climaxes and special occasions. That is to say that Mahler, who wrote almost no chamber music, created mini-chamber-music ensembles within his large orchestral forces, which means that much of the music in his symphonies fits surprisingly well with a 24-piece ensemble such as the Lapland Chamber Orchestra. Much is not all, however, and where Mahler drew on the substantial forces at his command – as in the famous dissonance that climaxes the first movement of the Tenth and recurs in the finale – the Storgårds performance is less than fully convincing. Or perhaps it is the Castelletti arrangement that falls a bit short here; it is hard to know. What makes this recording very much worth hearing and very much worthwhile for Mahler lovers to own is the fact that in most of the symphony, the completion and arrangement are exceptionally effective and deeply intriguing. This is truest in the parts of the symphony that are the most forward-looking, the ones in which Mahler himself almost seems part of the Second Viennese School as he strains tonality to and beyond the breaking point. The odd, angular rhythms that pervade this symphony may not come across as well here as in some other performances, but the extreme dissonances and the tonal misdirections, and the repeated refusal to allow this often-anguished music to settle into any sort of pleasant harmony, come through exceptionally well. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said, in a very different context, that the person who counts is the one “who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without shortcoming…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” The “completers” of Bruckner’s Ninth and Mahler’s Tenth, most emphatically including Schaller and Castelletti, are incapable of producing what these great composers would have created if they had finished these works. But by daring greatly, these “completers” give us insight, emotional uplift, intelligent thoughts about music, and greater understanding of the composers whose work they so admire that they strive to make performable what would otherwise be left unperformed or, at best, played as a shadow of what it could be. This is the sort of failure that, philosophically as well as musically, is well-nigh indistinguishable from success.