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Music Containing Multitudes


Andris Nelsons leads Mahler 9,(Liza Voll photo)
Andris Nelsons leads Mahler 9 (Liza Voll photo)

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.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Symphony Hall, the BSO, and Andris Nelsons were nothing less than HEAVY DUTY in their masterful performance on Friday afternoon. They actually MADE time STAND STILL for Malher’s 9 Symphony. I am not kidding when I say this to appear poetic. It really took place inside the Hall. I am just another ‘bozo on the bus’ without any vast musical experience. But as a human being, Malhers symphony experience is beyond the ordinary and allows anyone to be transformed into Malhers blissful netherworld under the exquisite guidance of Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

    Comment by Richard Riley — April 17, 2016 at 5:02 pm

  2. As I sat in Symphony Hall on Saturday night-listening to Nelsons and the BSO play with almost a supernatural magnificence,their performance of the Mahler 9th Symphony, It was very apparent-to me how Nelsons has now attained a very special maturity, in his interpretative approach, to this very special Mahler. That special maturity, was once, maybe only heard through the batons of an earlier generation of Mahler conductors, such as Bruno Walter and of course,Leonard Bernstein.

    But for all the extreme dynamics of the outer 3 movements,it was the playing of that final Adagio
    movement,- perhaps to be only experienced very rarely in ones concert-going lifetime. At the closing page: (Leonard Bernstein said it best in his 1973 Harvard -Norton lectures (” 20th Century Crisis )[required viewing for all lovers of this symphony !] In perhaps what might be the most-profound statement that Bernstein ever made on music – he talks about how-in that final page of the 9th Symphony, Mahler lets go of life, letting first one-then-another,”spidery strand ” connecting us to life, slip away. With each halting phrase-resignation turns into a final ” half-love with peaceful death “. Then there is nothing left – but the ultimate and eternal silence.

    And that ultimate silence was very palatable at the end of the performance, with a completely silent/still Nelsons on the podium and the audience immersed in a ambient field of time & infinity brought to stand still. I stopped counting -but it seemed like almost two minutes before the tumultuous applause broke out. A musical experience, ultimately beyond the ability of the written word to convey, in its transcendental outreach. . . . . .

    Comment by Ron Barnell — April 18, 2016 at 7:23 pm

  3. Ron Barnett commented (above) that at the end of the Mahler Ninth “it seemed like almost two minutes before the tumultuous applause broke out.” I checked my recording of the live broadcast of Saturday’s concert—the one he heard live—and timed the silence: 35 seconds. I was there too, and it did feel quite long, but it’s interesting to see how far one’s perception of time can differ from the reality of it!

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — April 19, 2016 at 11:52 pm

  4. I returned to Symphony Hall for the third time in the past 6 days to take in the final performance of Mahler 9th last night. The playing was technically perhaps the most robust of the three I heard in a ” rational, unsentimental but emotionally charged, utterly faithful to the score, exhaustively detailed ” rendition by the BSO under Nelsons – a Boulezian approach but with a human heart and touch. Nelsons made use of the delicate and multi-shaded strings composition and sound quality of BSO like no other conductor in recent memory to fully inhibit and explore the inner life of the music. Very impressive and in that sense, I believe the evolution of BSO’s performances will continue as they embark on their European tour. I sure hope BSO would release a recording of it for us – there’s simply too much to take in and think through while listening to it. To me Mahler’s Ninth is a deep utterance of Mahler’s love “for” life in the shadow of adversity and death…..until the longing, agony, struggle, fear finally subside in the final pages of the finale and gave away to acceptance and perhaps even peace and hope. It was as though Mahler stepped through a door in the final bars and discovered the beyond. This Mahler should give the entitled Viennese critics something to talk about.

    Comment by Brucknerliebhaber — April 20, 2016 at 6:41 am

  5. Was anyone else aware of amplification? I was jarred at one point by an entrance of harp and bells, located on stage right, that seemed to emerge through the stage left speakers. The bells surely didn’t need it; harp, well, maybe. I noticed harps amplified earlier in the season in a Russian piece; they sounded out of proportion to me. I think that in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with its marvelous acoustics, this should not be necessary.

    To be fair, the soft playing of the strings in the final Adagio was indeed ephemeral.

    Comment by Bonnie Pomfret — April 20, 2016 at 7:56 am

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