Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a one-work preview of repertoire for their upcoming European tour. Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 constituted last night’s Symphony Hall program.
Gustav Mahler began drafting this work in the late spring of 1909 and finished the orchestral draft later that same year. Writing to his friend and colleague Bruno Walter on 1 April 1910, he described the work as “a very positive enrichment to my little family.” That line belies the angst the composer felt at the daunting task of rivaling Beethoven and his ninth symphony. It also hides that his actual ninth is Das Lied von der Erde, apotropaically issued without number but descriptive entitled “a symphony for contralto (or baritone), tenor, and orchestra.” The appearance of the fraught s-word in that description hints at Mahler’s bifurcated views of pessimism and optimism, fate and free will, death and life. The actually numbered ninth also takes on added resonance and weight as the last score completed by the composer. Walter conducted the posthumous première on 26 June 1912 with the Wiener Philharmoniker; the North American début came later – 16 October 1931 with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In four movements, this monumental work (lasting some eighty-five to ninety minutes) looks back to the structure of Classical and Romantic symphonies, even as it charts new principles of structuration and expands the language of Western harmony, remaining tonal but flirting with an atonality that would ignite with the Second Viennese School shortly after Mahler’s unfortunately premature demise. In formal terms, slow outer movements and fast inner, as well as a decidedly post-Classical notion of thematic development, both look back to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique (as Deryck Cooke observed) and look forward to later twentieth-century exemplars of the genre. This performance also made clear the ways in which we would not have Shostakovich, symphonist, without Mahler 9.
The ninth opens Andante comodo. From initial silence a quiet rhythmic theme starts in the celli, quickly joined by horns and harps. (This performance uses Bruno Walter’s two harps rather than Gustav Mahler’s one.) The rumination centered around the note of “A” continues for three minutes—“do I dare”?—in an arrhythmia which has inspired commentary. We are decidedly in the world of slow change (Bruckner; Glass) even as the beautiful colors of the unique orchestration add dynamism to this notion. Even as Mahler cites Beethoven’s Lebewohl sonata, there is a Hail! in the music he creates from it. Spontaneity and growth vie with introspection and anxiety, indecision and angst. As ever, Mahler’s music plumbs the range of human experience. Here the art of transition is all the more remarkable for what it combines into one symphonic movement. With peaks and valleys, the music unfurls across longer stretches of time until the silent music of the imperceptible wins out.
The second movement, Im Tempo eines gemächliches Ländlers. Etwas täppisch under sehr derb (In the tempo of a comfortable Ländler. Somewhat clumsy and very coarse) is an earthier meditation on lusty life, vacillating between Ländlern (in C, in F) and a waltz (in E). Changes ring out like shifting dance partners, the instrumental pairings making this a paragon of orchestrational possibilities for a country dance full of spirit. As they evolve, they loose focus, becoming mildly frenetic.
The third movement, Rondo-Burleske. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (Very defiant), opens with a hurtling concatenation of ideas. Apollo reigns: contrapuntal ordering makes of these competing notions a scathing fugato (Shostakovich) which turns sweet, child-like, in its sport. Lush, full-throttled Romanticism (Rachmaninoff) arrives like sunshine parting the clouds. Yet it, too, winds down; anxiety returns. Trotzig is this in opposition to what precedes it. Skittering flurries of notes return before this movement ends with a martial mien.
The finale, Adagio, opens in the same vein as Emily Dickinson—“After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” Suffering subsumes structure, the music turns introspective. Here the defiance, the Will to continue composing comes to the fore. Yet even in joy there is melancholy and to this the music retreats. Dissolve to quiescence. Hold, and scene.
The BSO’s compelling reading met challenges of pitch and ensemble, blending of tone and color, marshaling a plethora of voices into coherence while maintaining distinct lines; Mahler’s pessimism shot through with moments of radiance broke forth in rapturous joy.
Michael Steinberg describes the opening Andante comodo of this piece as “surely Mahler’s greatest achievement in symphonic composition.” I can understand the truth of this statement but I did not hear the evidence. This massive movement opens a symphony about indecision, insecurity, and impending mortality. I found myself wondering about Andris Nelson’s vision here. It felt too safe, and secure. The show didn’t really begin until the end of this movement, when the music came to life. This Andante changes character and direction, advances and retreats, parries and thrusts; as composed there is nevertheless a linearity, indirect though it be. This went missing. I hope future performances can embrace this uncertainty from the very beginning with all the mastery and exuberance mustered later in the lengthy work.