Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D Major; VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum, May 24, 2014

The Mahler Revolution finished decades ago, but we have nonetheless waited a very long time for this VSO performance of Mahler’s Ninth, the last remaining symphony in a Mahler cycle that Maestro Bramwell Tovey began a full 13 years ago.  In fact, this performance itself was delayed, originally scheduled for late 2012.  Taking such a long time to finish a cycle is quite rare; conductors often become Mahler ‘hungry’ (for example, Michael Tilson Thomas and Gustavo Dudamel down the coast), performing the symphonies with increasing frequency and momentum, and then typically recording them all in 5 to 7 years.  But the more deliberate, ultra-patient approach seemingly does have its benefits in allowing more long-run insight and thought about each work.  The downside is that it becomes more difficult for an orchestra to fully work out, and internalize, a fully-authentic Mahler sound and style. 

Death-impregnated as it is and not forgetting the now often-played Symphony No. 10 (completed in various performing editions) and ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is still the composer’s most compelling presentation of the ‘new music’ he wanted to create.  While still using a very large orchestra and still aiming at compositions that convey ‘everything’ (Mahler’s own phrase), the composer’s ultimate objective was a music free from traditionally-upholstered romantic (‘Wagnerian’) associations, having a power and simplicity of expressive utterance, presenting a fusion of man, nature, and beauty sometimes with an almost a chamber music intimacy. By general agreement, the opening movement of the Ninth Symphony is his finest symphonic creation.

I was quite impressed with this performance.  There are so many ways one can go wrong in this symphony, but the big plus was that both the first and last movements achieved a convincing pulse and intensity, this by itself allowing a difficult and long work to add up to a substantive experience for the near sell-out house.  And I was also taken with just how serious most of the concertgoers were.  They were ready for a very special musical event and I don’t think they were disappointed. 

There is bound to be some interpretative caution and some executional uncertainties in any first night performance.  The string phrasing at the very opening was certainly in style; achieving the right breadth and line, but perhaps less than fully expressive.  And there was some tendency throughout for the upper strings to be weak relative to the rest of the orchestra.  Part of this might be attributed to the brass, which seemed somewhat too exuberant at points.  Nonetheless, the basic tempo for the opening movement was admirable, and the early climaxes were judged and executed with a very sure hand, as was the famous ‘loud as you can play’ climax later on.   This was fundamental to keeping everything together.  Perhaps we were moving slightly faster by the middle of this movement; thus the ‘death-knell’ timpani rhythm might have gained more sense of inevitability if delivered at a slightly slower speed.  And at times, I felt that more repose and ‘still’ were needed, such as before the first violin solo and in the rarefied, but suggestive, textures of the flute passages towards the end.   But these points are minor; the movement really flowed quite splendidly from beginning to end.  

The two middle movements were more controversial, being lighter, brisker, and less angular than they usually are, almost adding up to the feel of an interlude before the intense closing Adagio.  In principle, this seemingly makes sense, and indeed a number of the earlier symphonies do have these ‘interlude’ movements. But when the composer marks the second movement, for all the innocence of its opening motive, ‘heavy’ and ‘clumsy’, and the following movement ‘savage’, there is not much room to foster lightness per se; these are hard hitting, insistent movements.  The second is indeed a parody of a ‘landler’ (rustic peasant dance), and, as many great Mahler interpreters have shown, gains much from a really strong rhythmic emphasis and sforzando string attacks that allow both its bluff humour and other tensions to surface.  Bruno Walter could not be controlled from stomping his foot in this movement!  The current performance was altogether quicker and flatter in projection, and, with all its bustle, I think ended up compromising real weight.  The third movement seemed similar, more linear and driving in projection, but not obviously truculent, jagged or maniacal.  This meant that the entry of the solo trumpet later on did not yield the sense of release as it might. Still, this lighter approach to these ‘enigmatic’ movements was not without interest, even if it lacked authenticity.

The last movement was a genuine success.  I am partial to the viewpoint (that one finds in the classic performances) that this elegy should have a lean, searing intensity, a nobility, and a clear stoicism, eventually ending in an almost disembodied state where motion ceases.  As we get further away from that performing tradition, however, we now accept riper, more expressive treatments.  Maestro Tovey’s interpretation was probably closer to the latter, coaxing almost opulent Straussian textures out of the massed strings but keeping enviable control over the movement’s argument.  This was convincing on its own terms, maintaining concentration and feeling throughout and featuring particularly distinguished playing from all concerned.  The quiet, prolonged transition to the eventual ‘death’ state was indeed beautiful, moving and deeply-felt, time almost standing still (as it should) at the very end.  

The only question I have about the ending concerns the slight portamento and soft shaping in the shimmering strings.  Was this too beautiful?  Even early on in the descent, some of the feeling of the Lohengrin prelude came to me, with the Holy Grail just around the corner. Clearly, Mahler would have recoiled at any such allusion, dismissing it as part of an outdated romanticism that he was trying to replace.  I do often think that this ending should be as stark as possible, being Mahler’s attempt to represent a truly removed, almost emotionless, state where pure vibrato-less phrase fragments attempt to live but eventually wither away to nothing.  It is not about beauty in life -- or beauty in death.  As Leonard Bernstein has noted, Mahler makes three attempts to retrieve life from this disembodied state, and the third time there is nothing left.

The big thing that I took from this concert is just how refreshing it is to see performances of works of this scale and involvement from the VSO.  They are indeed a challenge for everyone concerned: the conductor, the orchestra and the audience.  In the three works (plus a soloist) format that dominate typical concert seasons, one simply does not see the intensity level or sense of occasion in the audience that we witnessed here.  These are genuine ‘events’, not just entertainment – and the very strong attendance speaks for itself.  Are we ready for Bruckner’s Eighth next? 


© Geoffrey Newman 2014