in: Reviews

May 4, 2014

Boston Phil’s Momentous Mahler Ninth

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BMInt staff photo

BMInt staff photo

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra under Music Director Benjamin Zander wrapped up its 2013-2014 season with a performance at Symphony Hall of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday night a week ago. The Ninth is a Zander touchstone, which he has presented in Boston four times since 1978 (BMInt review of their last performance from March 2010 is here). The Philharmonic gave the capacity crowd at Symphony Hall something momentous.

Mahler created his Ninth Symphony after being diagnosed with a damaged heart valve, the consequence of multiple childhood illnesses. At the time, he may have experienced the first symptoms of the subacute bacterial endocarditis that ultimately claimed his life at age 51. He also knew many of the master composers before him had died after writing a ninth symphony, so it comes as small surprise that many read a preoccupation with death and dying in this symphony; Leonard Bernstein’s video introduction (for the moment here) describes the symphony as “Four Ways to Say Farewell.” In his notes for the concert (you can read them here and listen to an interview with audio examples here), Zander also makes the case for experiencing the symphony in emotional terms.

Zander describes the colossal opening movement as a study in developing contrasts between “music that is gentle, harmonious, sublimely beautiful, and resolved; and music that is complex, dissonant, full of tension, and unresolved.” The gentle segment is characterized by a motif first articulated by the second violins with the repeated falling seconds, and the tense segment is announced by a syncopated, dotted-note, trumpet-like figure. The BPO’s strings, with violins divided to either side, opened with a gorgeously blended sound. In this gentle segment, the horns intruded in wonderfully jarring fashion with the agitated second theme. The first movement proceeded with carefully thought out, skillfully executed playing, with some transitions played for shocking starkness, others taking the breath away with sudden vanishing to hushed, beautifully balanced pianissimos, and still others showing a carefully controlled, slow-burn escalation. The brass section produced especially memorable sounds, including some keenly balanced, hushed chords and gaudily grotesque snarls and honks. In the final coda, the dotted-note figure transformed into a ravishingly beautiful horn duet, played with stunning restraint by Kevin Owen and Whitacre Hill, and the Philharmonic faded out with a poignant, naked vulnerability.

The second movement extends this music of duality, as it alternates between two characteristic Austrian triple-time dances, a droll, clod-footed Ländler and a grimly demonic waltz. The Boston Philharmonic gloried in the stark contrasts of style and dynamic, with different sections playing different themes at different volumes, independent and yet interlocked. They also showed off Mahler’s kaleidoscopic array of color choices, ending with a beautifully balanced final statement of the Ländler theme by double bassoon and piccolo, playing at the extreme low and high in perfect octaves.

The third movement Rondo-Burleske reverses the order of harmonious and dissonant, opening with an angular, anguished fughetta which alternates with placid, homophonic interludes. The Boston Philharmonic gloried in Mahler’s brutal contrapuntal savagery, and made judicious transitions to the placid moments, with the final one anticipating one of the great melodies in the finale. The movement ends with one final, bone-jarring statement of the Burleske segment.

Each section gets a moment to shine in this symphony, but the final Adagio put the Boston Philharmonic’s magnificent string section on display, and they responded with a ravishing, arresting sound, opulent and full, and equally moving at full-blooded fortissimo or hushed pianissimos. Principal violist Lisa Suslowicz and Concertmaster Jae Lee traded off moving solo moments, and near the end, a trio of cellists Rafael Popper-Keizer, Velleda Miragias, and Aristides Rivas played with noble openness. The wind principals (flute Kathleen Boyd, oboe Peggy Pearson, clarinet Thomas Hill, bassoon Adrian Morejon) did some stunning quartet work as well, but it was the hushed, balanced string section that brought the finale to an ecstatic conclusion.

Mahler’s final artistic testament certainly can accommodate more than one interpretation, but Zander and the Philharmonic made a strong case for this momentous, duality-driven approach. The Philharmonic season has drawn to a close, though Zander will be back with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in a program of Ravel, Ginastera, and Richard Strauss on Sunday, May 18 at Sanders Theatre.

3 Comments

  1. Mahler finished the 9th in 1909. His heart valve defect was discovered (accidentally) in 1907 when a doctor who was treating Alma was asked to listen to Mahler’s heart. The presence of a murmur reinforced Mahlers preoccupation with death. This also was shortly after the death of his daughter. At that time rest was thought to be a proper treatment even though he had no symptoms. He may have suffered from what we could call a “cardiac neurosis.”

    The symptoms of subacute bacterial endocarditis (SBE) did not start till late in 1910. Untreated SBE has a course of months, not years. The primary event was a severe tonsillitis that “seeded” the valves. Before antibiotics SBE was uniformly fatal in a few months. So the 9th symphony was indeed written while preoccupied with his heart disease but before the onset of the terminal event – SBE.

    Comment by Herbert Rakatansky MD — May 6, 2014 at 12:02 pm

  2. I didn’t write at great length about Mahler’s relationship with death, in part because there wasn’t time to research this in depth (and this review was already tardy in arrival because I myself was sick).

    I’m aware that Mahler was diagnosed with a heart murmur, and aware that the actual symptoms of the subacute bacterial endocarditis that killed him did not start until after he had completed the Ninth. The limited biographical information that I have at hand in my home library indicates that he was maintaining a level of activity that would imply that the valve was not causing significant problems with his function, though there’s at least one report of near-collapse from exhaustion in 1909 (I don’t know though if this was a genuine sign of a problem or off-stage theatrics, and unfortunately I don’t have a few months to read all of Henry-Louis de la Grange to see if there are more clear cut symptoms or not).

    What I hinted at, and what Dr. Rakatansky picks up on, is that while Mahler may have had some preoccupation of death given what he had dealt with in life, it is not clear to me that he wrote the Ninth with an unambiguous death sentence on his head. And I wonder: if you do not take it for granted that Mahler’s Ninth is all about death, do you interpret the work differently?

    The Open Source interview page has a few links at the bottom, one of which is Alex Ross’s review of a few Mahler biographies at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n16/alex-ross/the-biggest-rockets Ross writes:

    “His music would probably sound fresher if conductors were less inclined to treat him as a saint. Current performance style favours slow tempos and plush sonorities, sacralising the music as post-Wagnerian ritual. The quotations are pronounced in earnest, without quotation marks. I would plead with conductors to bring out the muscle, the anger, the nastiness, the wit in Mahler. If you listen to older recordings by Hermann Scherchen or Dimitri Mitropoulos you will see what I mean.”

    The movie _Death in Venice_ shows you what happens if you make the Adagietto from the Mahler 5th a lugubrious exercise in death obsession, and I don’t think that’s what Mahler intended with that work. When Bruno Walter performed the 9th with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938, the performance took about 77 minutes. Most modern performances take over 90 minutes (including the Boston Phil performance). I think this performance was persuasive for this approach, but I’m not sure that I buy that the work has to be taken as a colossal funeral procession every time.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — May 7, 2014 at 9:22 am

  3. Dr. Liu refers to a 1938 Walter/VPO performance lasting 77 minutes. A more dramatic comparison is the Walter/VPO recording on EMI CDH 7 63029 2, dated 16/01/1938, whose duration is 69’50!

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 8, 2014 at 1:03 pm

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