Barshai’s Hair-Raising Mahler 10th

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 (ed. Barshai) / Junge Deutsche Philharmonie; Rudolf Barshai, cond / Brilliant Classics 94040 (live: 9/12/2001; also available for free streaming on YouTube)

Someone on Twitter posted the cover of this recording yesterday, and it caught my eye because I had never seen it or heard of it before. This is a live 2001 performance of Rudolf Barshai’s re-orchestration of the Mahler Tenth Symphony, played by (as the name indicates) an orchestra of young German musicians. It was originally issued in 2003 as part of a 2-CD set with his recording of the Mahler Fifth, then in 2010, the year of Barshai’s death, as a stand-alone disc.

The good news is that it is a very intense and powerful reading of the score, in fact one of the very best I’ve ever heard—I can only compare it with the even lesser-known performance conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with the BBC Symphony. More controversial, however, is Barshai’s decision to score the symphony for a much fuller orchestra than Mahler himself did in the “Adagio” and everyone else has done in the rest of the symphony.

David Hurwitz, a critic I generally agree with 90% of the time (very good odds!), wrote an excellent review of this performance on his website, Classics Today, from which I quote the following:

Barshai’s own orchestration of the unfinished Tenth Symphony, heavily scored for a huge orchestra that doesn’t sound especially Mahlerian (at this stage in his career Mahler’s own scoring would have been much leaner and more economical), but nevertheless played to the hilt by Barshai and his remarkable youth ensemble.

The first movement in particular has the most hair-raisingly terrifying climax that anyone has ever achieved from this music. Part of the effect may derive from Barshai’s fuller instrumentation and bolder dynamics, and you can’t help but notice the date of this live performance: September 12, 2001. Whatever the reason, the entire reading has tremendous intensity and conviction, though as with all arrangers of this work Barshai hasn’t quite solved the problem of the finale’s quick middle section and the return of the first-movement climax–nor perhaps (at this stage of composition) had Mahler.[1]

But I, personally, would point out that the Tenth Symphony was his emotional reaction to learning of his wife Alma’s licentious infidelity, a discovery which wracked Mahler to the core of his being. (He even wrote a note in the score wondering why she had betrayed him.) Of course, this goes against Alma’s assertion that the Tenth was a “love letter” to her, but then again, she refused to let anyone see the entire score as long as she was alive. This was only discovered after her death.

Thus there is at least this to justify Barshai’s use of an orchestra equal to the size of that used in the Fifth through the Seventh symphonies, although I think I heard the addition of an organ in the second large climax of the opening “Adagio” (and also in the last movement), but since no one else has brought this up it just might be the unusual way be combines low winds and strings. He does, however, have the strings use much longer bowing than usual, and I think this is something that Mahler would have agreed with. (He also adds mandolins to the orchestra.) Alma’s betrayal, as I said, shook Mahler to the core, and let’s face it, his symphonies are all personal diaries in sound of his deepest fears, loves, longings and reactions to natural stimuli. Even moreso than Beethoven, who ranks second in this respect, or Weinberg, who ranks third, the powerful emotions of Mahler’s music are what repelled most conductors before the late 1950s. The music was not only neurotic at times, but didn’t follow the set “rules” of composition and thus were considered to be no more than hysterical rants.

Barshai’s reading of the Scherzo is also more emotionally powerful than anyone else’s, again due in large part to the new orchestration but also to the way he drove his orchestra. In fact, they play each and every movement as if their very lives depended on it. The transition into the last movement suddenly shifts the mood from neurotic to an incredible depth of sadness, almost too much for one person to bear, and this, too is caught perfectly by the orchestra,

Whatever your take on the orchestration may be, there’s no question that this is one of the most emotional Maher Tenths ever recorded. Absolutely a hell of a performance; I guarantee that, once heard, you’ll never forget it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-10257/

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One thought on “Barshai’s Hair-Raising Mahler 10th

  1. Pingback: Barshai’s Hair-Raising Mahler 10th – MobsterTiger

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