Here’s the opening Adagio from the concert—BTW, yet another demo of the benefits of conducting from memory:
And here’s the complete 1980 recording with Simon (“as he was then”—before he was awarded the impediment) conducting the Bournemouth symphony orchestra:
Only half-written before Mahler died in 1911, the work was hardly performed until Deryck Cooke’s completed version became popular in the 1960s. Though I got to know it not so long after, it’s ages since I immersed myself in it.
Under Mahler’s own torments the music often splinters, exemplifying the later devastation of European culture. In context (from 17.24 in the video, 16.15 on the 1980 version) the Scream chord of the Adagio is truly horrifying, presaged by huge nightmarish clashing granite slabs of sound, linked by a terrifying high sustained trumpet note, and followed by a screeching top D from the violins:
Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing,* but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):
- 16.15 the descent into hell begins
- 16.44 rise of Nazism
- 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
- 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
- 17.37 the concentration camp system
- 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.
Of course, you can ignore all that, and just hear it as a cumulative drama of agony.
Here’s Bernstein conducting the Adagio (with the Vienna Phil still uncontaminated by women…)
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An ominous opening to the Finale—inspired, according to Alma, by hearing from afar the funeral of a heroic fireman in New York —leads into an exquisite flute solo (from 53.57) and sustained string lines (with more of those climactic struggling quintuplets, e.g. from 1.11.51) almost recalling the finale of the 3rd symphony. Despite interruptions from the funeral drum and the Scream, the mood is more serene, less desolate than his other late works.
In last week’s LSO version the violins (and violas?!) made their final searing leap on the G string!!! [My Mahlerian exclamation marks].
The Barshai version of the symphony is also much praised:
(for a discerning series of photos to accompany the finale, see here)
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Mahler’s “late” works are such a comprehensive series of farewells (abschied; not so late, but perhaps most moving of all is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen—with a similar but pianissimo final violin leap) that it’s always strange to realize that he died at the age of 50. What would have become of him had he lived into the 1940s?
 For accessible accounts of Mahler’s last years, the 1907 New York funeral, and the history of Deryck Cooke’s version, see Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.171–223, 275–9. Here’s Alma’s recollection of the funeral (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.135):
Marie Uchatius, a young art-student, paid me a visit one day in the Hotel Majestic. Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out of the window and saw a long procession in the broad street along the side of Central Park. It was the funeral cortege of a fireman, of whose heroic death we had read in the newspaper. The chief mourners were almost immediately beneath us when the procession halted, and the master of ceremonies stepped forward and gave a short address. From our eleventh floor window we could only guess what he said. There was a brief pause and then a roll of muffled drums, followed by a dead silence. The procession then moved forward and all was over.
The scene brought tears to my eyes and I looked anxiously at Mahler’s window. But he too was leaning out and his face was streaming with tears. The brief roll of the muffled drums impressed him so deeply that he used it in the Tenth Symphony.
* Imputing verbal programmes to musical detail, I mean: the whole point of music is that it expresses things that can’t be expressed in words. Even novelists—who do use words!—find this irritating; I can’t find a source or precise quote, but as I recall, when asked “What were you trying to say in this book?”—one frustrated novelist replied, “I was ‘trying’ to say exactly what I did say.” (Martin Amis, would be my guess. Anyone?)