The Mahler X industry just keeps booming! This disc, with the Wheeler version, comes right on the heels of the latest Cooke version by Rattle and of the Mazzetti version by Lopez-Cobos. Its booklet notes are exemplary, while at the same time constituting an entertaining illustration of this peculiar branch of musicological expertise. No less than three experts are rallied together to vindicate this work's progress out of limbo. Just how far specialism has evolved is finely demonstrated by Olson, the conductor, who did some final editing on the Wheeler score and now worries that the listener may wonder how much of what he hears is Wheeler, and how much is Olson. Apparently we have finally moved completely beyond the question how much of it is Mahler (the composer, remember).
After Cooke, Cooke II, Mazzetti, Mazzetti II and Carpenter, do we really need a Wheeler version of this work? Well, whatever the artistic verdict on his efforts, Wheeler can hardly be accused of piling Ossa on Pelion, because he was actually the very first to produce a finished edition. That in itself seems to entitle him to a hearing. And like the Cooke, Wheeler's edition is one that you can hardly argue with, because it stays very close to the sketches, adding as little as possible. So all doubting Thomases out there, who weren't sure of Mahler X, now have a great opportunity to enrich their musical life and re-evaluate their appreciation of Mahler (be warned: it may be a shock to some to find that the convenient closure provided by the Ninth's `farewell to life' in truth is nothing of the kind!). Naxos's pricing is low risk as ever, and one could do worse orchestra-wise than with the Polish N.O. Their horn section deserves special mention: it is superb and would do the greatest of orchestras proud. The rest of the wind section doesn't yield much to that high standard. Which is more than can be said of the strings, who enliven proceedings with not quite occasional lapses of ensemble and intonation. Nevertheless, they play with conviction and great warmth and fullness of tone. The recording is rather good, much richer than the strangely opaque and lacklustre sound EMI produced for Rattle's latest (and otherwise brilliant) recording in Berlin. However, the biggest moments lack sufficient power, especially in the bass regions. Also, this is yet another of those myriad recordings where the bass drum is generally inaudible, and if audible, sounds like a tenor drum hit with a wooden stick. Which is pretty disastrous at the start of the Finale, where the bass drum is at the core of the drama!
Without a score at hand, it is hard to judge what aspects of the music making itself are true to the Wheeler-edition or rather part of this particular interpretation of it. In general this version seems to share with Mazzetti II a certain chamber-like quality and light-footedness, though here the music emerges more of a piece, less fragmented than on Lopez-Cobos's recording of the Mazzetti edition. Even the opening adagio sounds peaceful and beneficent instead of dark and brooding. As with Mazzetti II, this approach entails the loss of more tormented and demonic aspects of the music. The famous, climactic cluster-chord fails to devastate (and the trumpet soaring above it seems in a bit of a struggle to keep its piercing note going). The `Purgatorio' movement acquires a rustic, almost jolly earthiness that I'm not sure is what Mahler meant. The harrowing spookiness pervading the final pages of Scherzo II and the start of the Finale are also lost on Wheeler (or Olson) - actually, the funereal events opening the Finale are hurried by at an astonishing (and in my view unlikely) allegretto tempo! (Maybe the undertaker had another job waiting?). But then that incredible flute solo emerges and we are on home ground again. The final pages are as moving here as they ever were anywhere, and are themselves reason enough to hear this disc. But then again, this is not the `library choice', so even if you harbour only a slightly more than passing interest in this work, it is worthwhile to invest in a more probing interpretation. You don't need to worry much about editions, because interestingly Cooke, Mazzetti, Wheeler and their permutations, for all their differences in surface detail,in the end all sound very much like the same work. There is, as Alma Mahler tearfully concluded after hearing Cooke's version, `so much Mahler in the score', that the immutable essence of the music is there, pure vintage Mahler. As for recordings, the strangely underrated Chailly on Decca remains my favourite; but if sound quality is not a major concern to you, Rattle's Berlin recording is probably the one to go for.