MSO: Mahler 10: Letters and Readings

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Published: 4th April, 2019

This presentation served to show the intensity with which Mahler drew on the personal in his creative processes. It also most effectively opened up a work – which might otherwise be less approachable than some others – to a very grateful audience.

Though Mahler never completed the work, it is important to note that all of the material was laid out in full by the composer in a four-stave version. Formally complete, the next step would have been the fleshing out of the orchestration – a task Mahler did not live to see out. This work was later carried out by musicologist Deryck Cooke. Cooke created the first performing edition of this work in 1964, later revising the orchestration. This is the version presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

The first half took the form of dialogue and interview with the “ghost” of Mahler, played by actor Tama Matheson, and conductor Sir Andrew Davis. This material was generated from diary excerpts and letters. These really did illuminate Mahler’s life and work very well in both general and specific ways – many quite pointed references strongly related to the content of a number of Mahler’s works, leading to their relationship with the 10th. Excerpts were performed; these illustrations were extremely effective, and well received by the audience. If some of the verbal interaction at times seemed corny, they were nonetheless very faithful to source materials – we really did get a glimpse of the man.

Mahler at this point in his life was dealing with a number of bitter disappointments, both professional and personal, and as one of the last flowering expressions of the Romantic era ethos, he was compelled to give expression to the personal in the piece. It is fascinating to reflect on the range of musical and artistic movements in Europe at the time. The widely divergent approaches of Debussy, Sibelius, and Stravinsky were all prevalent in that period approaching the First World War, and this was alluded to in a remark that Mahler had made to the effect that, while Sibelius believed that form was the overriding consideration, to Mahler “the symphony must contain the whole world!”

The second half was the presentation of the five movements of the symphony, whole and without comment. The opening Adagio was most poignant, beginning with the violas. With a luminous tone and a minimum of vibrato any tendency to the maudlin or overt emotion was avoided, and the effect was the more powerful for just allowing the music to speak for itself. Most finely judged. The following Scherzo was a wonderful contrast, where the colours of the orchestra really shone. On this occasion it was augmented with a wide range of instruments, including the more rarely heard extensions of the various instrument families, as well as the sheer number of players that this score necessitates. The third movement, Purgatorio, shows a polyphonic texture, where motifs are presented and dealt with at times with a kind of mockery in the writing – again, the effect heightened by the colourful instrumental combinations. The second Scherzo contrasted yet again, and the intensity of the final movement’s expressive drama drew a rapturous response from the audience. At the end there was an appropriate silence, then such applause that Davis was compelled to make several reappearances after his apparent final bow.

What became evident in this presentation is the extent to which Mahler was here moving from romanticism to expressionism. Among the depictions of early 20th century Viennese life, there are musical gestures of utterly personal response – chordal dissonances and an unresolved single note on the trumpet that can only be described as a scream of pain. Edvard Munch is right here. Though slightly shattered waltzes are depicted, marches, oratory – these motifs are met with burlesque responses, as if to taunt underlying beliefs. The demonstration and readings in the first half beautifully threw these aspects of Mahler’s deep personal expression into relief.

What was also evident is the degree to which the presentation was grasped by the audience. Listening to conversations in the foyer, both the effectiveness of illustrating and highlighting that to which we were to listen, and the effectiveness of the performance itself were extremely appreciated. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis are to be commended for this most effective presentation of this work. It truly deepened our appreciation, both of our own orchestra, and Mahler.


Peter Hurley attended the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler 10: Letters and Readings at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on March 21, 2019.