Mahler’s unfinished symphony needs no footnotes

MUSIC

Sir Andrew Davis (almost) completes his Mahler cycle with the MSO.Credit:Peter Tarasiuk

MAHLER 10: LETTERS AND READINGS ★★★★½
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 
Hamer Hall, March 22

A perfect storm of trauma raged around Mahler in the years preceding the composition of his final symphony: an incurable heart defect, the death of his daughter, the loss of his job and the discovery of his wife's infidelity.

Each calamity added to a brew of emotions that found form in the 10th – an extraordinary, biographical outpouring of despair, mortal terror and betrayal, but also the faint hope of reconciliation.

Mahler died before the work's completion, in 1910, but thanks to the labours of musicologists, there are several performable constructions of the symphony today. Deryck Cooke's version, heard here, is widely regarded the most convincingly Mahlerian.

This culmination of the MSO's Mahler Symphonies cycle with Sir Andrew Davis (bar the eighth, due at a future date) included a theatrical flourish as actor Tama Matheson – in the guise of Mahler – put on an oddly pantomimic (and at times, slightly cringy) double act with Sir Andrew, drawing on the composer's writings to reveal his innermost thoughts.

While fascinating, it proved superfluous. The composer's conflict was already writ large in the music, refracted time and again through an emotionally warped Romantic ideal; just as a phrase appears close to a familiar cadence or gesture, the texture is ruptured by invading dissonances.

Davis has a stunning facility for grandeur but it's his mastery of tenderness that stood this rendering apart, connecting the totemic, railing anguish of the first movement to the cathartic release of the last.

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