The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture

Musical "last thoughts" continue to haunt the trans-Millennial divide, so it's hardly surprising that when Sir Simon Rattle won "the" Berlin conductorship he celebrated with two performances of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony. EMI's engineers were on hand to chronicle history and now we can all savour the results.

This is Rattle's second recording of the piece, although his interpretative journey from Bournemouth (1980) to Berlin (1999) has facilitated insights that even Deryck Cooke - the man who masterminded the symphony's "performing version" - would hardly have imagined possible.

Rattle has held Mahler 10 so close to his heart and performed it so many times that even doubters like me are swept away by the sheer power of his vision. The finale is usually the biggest problem (too much introspection, not enough argument) and yet who but a lip-curling cynic could remain unmoved by Rattle's handling of the Symphony's last few minutes?

Years ago, if someone had played me the finales to Mahler's Tenth and the Seventh symphonies side-by-side then asked me which was the "completion", I would have opted for the Seventh. It's a real rag-bag of a piece and most conductors haven't a clue how to handle it; but one who had was, like Rattle, a celebrated Brit who brought Mahler back to Berlin. Sir John Barbirolli's 1960 Mahler 7 (performed live by the combined Hallé and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestras) is, in my view, one of the most remarkable Mahler broadcasts of the period - as vivid, focused and loving as any we've heard since, and forget about a handful of fluffs. Listen to how the cellos sing out at the beginning of the second movement, or the way swirling instrumental voices "connect" in the scherzo, or the finale's tough-minded cogency. It's coupled, on a fabulous all-mono BBC Legends double-pack, with a red-blooded 1966 account of Bruckner's Ninth. There, the big moment arrives at 13'27" into the Adagio, where Bruckner suddenly becomes Vaughan Williams (Tallis Fantasia) and Barbirolli seems grateful for the brief trip home.

If the BBC set offers Barbirolli's Mahler and Bruckner at their best, parallel claims might be made on behalf of a 1956 Pye recording of Elgar's First Symphony that Dutton has just refurbished for a brand-new CD transfer. Again, there's one marvellous sampling point. It falls at 7'25" into the finale, where the principle theme is slowed down, passed to the strings and - in this recording - sings its heart out. The same all-Elgar double-pack includes a breathless set of Enigma Variations from 1947, two versions of the Elegy and two of the Introduction & Allegro - each from 1947 and 1956.

It's fascinating to switch from one to the other, then witness how passion and drive were later nourished by wisdom. There's a more famous version of the Introduction & Allegro, from 1962 (EMI) - but these 1956 stereo sessions are definitely the ones to go for.

Mahler Rattle EMI CDC5 56972 2 Mahler/Bruckner Barbirolli BBC Legends BBCL 4034-2 (two discs) Elgar Barbirolli Dutton CDSJB 1017 (two discs)