Today, an increasing number of conductors, like the Berlin Philharmonic's Simon Rattle, are performing the Tenth complete. One of the great losses of the last Chicago Symphony season was when health problems forced conductor Riccardo Chailly to drop out of scheduled performances of the Tenth with the CSO, after which the program, itself, was dropped in favor of substitute programming.
Through about noon Monday, however, you can hear Chailly's superb performance of the 10th with his own orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, that took place this past Monday at the London Proms. It's available via streaming audio here, and it's highly recommended.
If you know the work, however, you'll be slightly shocked not to hear, at the beginning of the last movement, the usual Thwack!s on a muffled bass drum. According to Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Chailly has taken his own pencil to the score and replaced the single-note Thwack! with a "short, two-note anacrusis before each note – 'buh-duh-DUM! Buh-duh-DUM!'"
Jakob-Hoff calls it "something better . . . .That particular rhythmic motif appears in various guises all the way through the symphony’s last three movements."
I'm not convinced. One of the most extraordinary things about the Tenth is how, at key points, it erupts with incredible rawness. Think of that sustained high-pitched note on the trumpet that sounds almost like a riff on an air raid siren, a terrifying prophecy of the sweeping waves of brutality and violence in which, not long after Mahler's death, the 20th Century would begin to drown.
To me that Thwack! is equally pivotal. It's said to have been inspired by a similarly struck drum Mahler heard outside his New York window, part of a funeral procession for a city fireman. When Chailly accents the drumbeat to mirror and integrate it with parallel melodic figurations elsewhere in the symphony, he softens, dilutes, takes the edge off the shock.
As Mahler was finishing his work on the Tenth, his health had begun to fail; he could feel the premonitions of death. And, he knew that the love of his life, Alma, was having an affair with another man. Those dull, empty, echoless thuds are the airless horror of the moment you turn and find the end of your being pressed like a prison cell wall against your face. The sick dread sinking in the pit of your stomach, the light suddenly snuffed out by an unseen, indifferent hand as you realize: there's no life, no love, no music.
Except, of course, Mahler gives us all three. They are his answers to that dread, to the abyss. If, as Leonard Bernstein argued, Mahler's Ninth Symphony was a series of farewells to the things the composer loved best, the Tenth takes it further. Mahler now sees those things from the grave, continuing on after him as if he never existed. To me, the final adagio of the Tenth is Mahler coming to terms with that fact with music that is giving, sublime and incredibly moving. No personal resurrection, but the gift of spirit, anima, in every breath of those Mahler touched and who live on, down to the audiences of today.
End of essay: Why I think a whack with one note is better than a whack with three.
Judge for yourself, but remember you have only through Monday noon to hear Chailly's exceptionally fine performance, here.