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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Stop messing with our Mahler

By Norman Lebrecht / May 9, 2002

Mozart, as all who saw Amadeus will recall, was writing a Requiem on his deathbed. "Did I not tell you," he gasped, "that I am writing this for myself ?" On 4 December 1791, feeling slightly better, he sang the alto part in an impromptu rehearsal. But he died in the early hours of the next morning, leaving the Requiem incomplete.

To claim the full commission fee, the widow Constanze gave the score to an ex-pupil, Joseph Eybler, then to another, Franz-Xaver Sussmayr, who rounded it off and forged Mozart's signature at the end. The Requiem was conducted by Count Franz von Walsegg, who paid for it, in Wiener Neustadt on 14 December 1793, in memory of his late wife. He gave a repeat performance two months later, but then seems to have lost interest. The manuscript was found in his estate in 1839, whereupon a Court official deemed it insufficiently devout and banned further performances.

Still, you can't keep a masterpiece down. Mozart's Requiem soon achieved universal appeal, becoming the chillout favourite of Victorian concert halls. It remained a seasonal fixture until quite recently, when assaults by scholarly pedants and note-picking conductors kicked it back into limbo.

The so-called "early-music revolution" came equipped with its own secret police. These Torquemadas of the period-instrument tendency subjected the Requiem to casuistic investigation, challenging any note that was not in Mozart's hand and excising whatever they held to be Sussmayr's accretions. Out went the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and half the Lacrymosa - as if an inconsequential acolyte who wrote no memorable theme in the rest of his short life (Sussmayr died, like Mozart, at 36) could have devised such glories without some hint from the dying master.

A purified Requiem was recorded by Christopher Hogwood in 1984 and public performances began to diminish. Conductors, fearful of being caught using a "corrupt" score, struck it from their schedules. Music lovers, befuddled, turned elsewhere. A preoccupation with literal exactitude thus reduced a cornerstone of western culture to an occasional curiosity.

None of this has deterred the grand inquisitors, who are busier than ever trying to prove that the music we love is entirely wrong. Any incorrectness that escapes them is pounced upon by an army of netcurtain informers, who have been encouraged to believe they are the public guardians of a genius's final legacy. Next at risk is the Tenth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, which is about to appear on the Naxos record label in something like its 10th "authentic" completion. Confused? You should be.

Mahler died in May 1911, leaving two movements of his last symphony fully sketched, the remaining three very sketchy. His widow, Alma, published a 116-page facsimile in 1924 and permitted the Adagio and Purgatorio sections to be performed. She withheld further pages of the symphony, perhaps because of the intimate exclamations of love and terror that Mahler had scrawled between the lines.

In 1960, for the centenary of Mahler's birth, a BBC producer called Deryck Cooke attempted a realisation of the full symphony. Alma, moved to tears by the recording, released 40 more pages. Cooke's completion was performed in 1964 and became the industry standard. It is a work of considerable imagination that bridges gaps of thought and theme in the surviving manuscript. The score has been developed some way further by the composers Colin and David Matthews and the conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

Cooke, however, was not the first to finish Mahler's Tenth. He used to spend Sunday afternoons playing in an amateur orchestra that met in an Essex farmer's barn. The trumpeter, a civil servant named Joe Wheeler, was working independently on the Tenth and reached the point where he led a strings-only rehearsal in 1958. It is his completion that now appears on Naxos.

Once Cooke's version had triumphed, Wheeler's never got beyond a New York college performance. Mahlerians in America challenged both scores. Some said the Brits had gone too far, others not far enough. A Chicagoan, Carlton Carpenter, performed the most radical of completions in 1984. His assistant, Remo Mazetti, went on to have two cracks at the score, one commercially recorded by Leonard Slatkin, the other by Jesus Lopez-Coboz.

The Russian conductor Rudolph Barshai produced a new version last year, as did a pair of Italian pathologists, Niccola Sammale and Giuseppe Mazzuca. I have heard all the competing completions and can assure you that, except for 342 dogged subscribers to an internet Mahler list, no one on earth can tell them apart and none of them makes a valid case to displace Cooke.

But what, you ask, of Wheeler? Six years ago, a friend from Colorado sought my help in tracing the civil servant's attempt. I tried the farm in Essex, but no one raises orchestras there any more. By luck, Wheeler had corresponded with a Canadian, Jack Diether, whose widow turned up fragments of four separate versions of the symphony. After weeks of collation by teams of volunteers, Robert Olson edited the Wheeler score and conducted it at a festival in Boulder in January 1997.

The Wheeler solution differs from Cooke and Co in two respects. Its tempi are jauntier and its textures more sparse. At first sight, this might appear to be the Hogwood of Mahler Tenths, the one to end all Mahler Tenths. But rather than ruining the appetite and confusing the public, the Wheeler score sheds new light on the symphony, removing lugubrious solemnity and suggesting a subversive irony. At £5 a pop, it is also the cheapest recording on the racks.

Which prompts me to draw a line between the whittlers-down of Mozart and the remoulders of Mahler. The Mozart cops are puritans, out to deny us what we think we like. The Mahler Mounties are frontiersmen, pushing out horizons. Rather than bemusing us, their Pooterish proliferation of Mahler Tenths undermines the academic notion of authenticity. It suggests that there is no correct way of reading a dying man's intentions - and that, in these politically correct times, is no small victory for freedom of thought.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001