How many times have I heard a New England Conservatory orchestra play Mahler’s Ninth? Benjamin Zander favored it when he was conducting at NEC, and he still does: his Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra will be performing it next March in Symphony Hall. But Wednesday at Jordan Hall, it was the turn of Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia, and they did themselves proud.
The Ninth might seem an odd work to be presenting to teenagers — few pieces of classical music are more redolent of death. In his Charles Eliot Norton lectures from 1973, Leonard Bernstein declared “that ours is the century of death, and that Mahler is its musical prophet.” And Lewis Thomas had this to say in his essay “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony”: “I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the death of humanity.” In his Mahler, A Musical Physiognomy, Theodor Adorno wrote of the symphony’s final page, “The long gaze is fixed on the condemned.” Paul Bekker, riffing on Mahler’s movement titles for his Third Symphony, called it simply “What Death tells me.”
You’d think that Mahler had anticipated the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, terrorist attacks, and climate change. The Ninth, which Mahler completed in 1909, is actually a very personal response from a composer who had lost his four-year-old daughter Maria to diphtheria and scarlet fever in 1907 and had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition — bacterial endocarditis — that would lead to his death in 1911. Bernstein suggested that the opening syncopated rhythm in the French horns and cellos represents Mahler’s irregular heartbeat.
Death is certainly in the air. At the outset of the Andante comodo first movement, the second violins’ major-second descending figure, F-sharp to E, recalls the beginning of Beethoven’s Les adieux (“Farewell”) piano sonata. The development finishes in a cortège; Mahler marked it “Wie ein schwerer Kondukt” (“Like a heavy funeral procession”). Mahler also, on a draft of the Andante, wrote “Leb’ wol” (“Farewell”) at the end.
Yet as Mahler’s great biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, reminded us, the full title of Beethoven’s sonata is Les adieux, l’absence et le retour (“The Farewell, the Absence, and the Return”), and it was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, who at the time (May 1809) was leaving Vienna (Napoleon’s troops were approaching) but was expected back. And when he composed the Ninth, a century later, Mahler was in reasonably good health and spirits; he certainly wasn’t doomed to die as early as he did. No sooner did he complete the Ninth than he started work on the Tenth.
Mahler also wrote on his draft of the Andante “O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O Liebe! Verwehte!” (“O Youth! Vanished! O Love! Blown away!”) — which might suggest that this movement is really about the death of love. It’s built on two thematic groups, one in D major, the other in D minor. The consoling D-major group can’t quite bring itself to drop all the way from F-sharp to E to D — as if fearful of what it will find when it reaches “home.” But it’s the turbulent, chaotic D-minor group that keeps causing the Andante to crash. The culprit is a theme from the Blumine movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, a movement that grew out of his abortive love for the soprano Johanna Richter. Mahler deleted Blumine after the First’s initial three performances, but its themes return in the symphony’s final movement, and they persist throughout his work, notably at the beginning of the Third Symphony and in the Scherzo of the Seventh. It’s the Johanna Richter of Mahler’s vanished youth (he was 24 at the time) who’s the lost love of the Andante, and the Blumine theme that gives the movement no peace.
What repose the Andante does have provided by another allusion, this time to a Johann Strauss waltz, Freut euch des Lebens (“Enjoy Life”). This is hinted at the beginning of the movement and then is heard in full at bar 147, a few minutes into the development. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the German folksong with the same title turns up in Titan, the Jean Paul novel that for a time gave its name to Mahler’s First Symphony.) One could debate whether Mahler meant the allusion to be ironic. Irony would be inevitable in any case, but perhaps the title speaks for itself. The waltz tune, even as it’s disassembled, persists to the end of the movement.
The second movement, though marked “Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers” (“In the tempo of a leisurely ländler”), actually comprises four dances: a clumsy, awkward Ländler, a pair of bad-tempered waltzes (the first hinting at a waltz from Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe, the second heavy on trombones and oom-pah tuba), and finally a shy, wallflowerish Ländler, almost a minuet, that recalls the Andante’s falling D-major idea. Things get hectic on the dance floor: when after the first waltz appears the first Ländler tries to re-enter, it gets shoved aside. I don’t imagine for a moment that Mahler had Cinderella in mind, but you could think of the first Ländler as Cinderella, the bad-tempered waltzes as her stepsisters, and the second Ländler as a hapless fairy godmother.
Dedicated to his “brothers in Apollo,” those critics who had accused Mahler of not being able to write counterpoint, the Rondo-Burleske serves up a dozen minutes of snarling, vertiginous polyphony. It’s not all academic, however: about five minutes in there’s an obvious reference to Die lustige Witwe’s “Weiber” chorus, and then, after some sarcastic squeaking from the E-flat clarinet, the Lustige Witwe waltz that was hinted at in the second movement reappears, Danilo’s “O kommet doch, o kommt, ihr Ballsirenen” (“Oh come you now, oh come, you dancing sirens”), turned into a wistful, idealistic trumpet theme, a promise of better things to come, whether in life or death.
And that theme introduces the concluding D-flat-major Adagio. Death is still in the air. At bar 8, Mahler quotes the phrase from his song Urlicht (“Primal Light”) that accompanies the words “Je lieber mocht’ ich im Himmel sein” (“I would rather be in Heaven”). At bar 11, a solo bassoon in D-flat minor intones an expressionless rising phrase, as if it were guiding the symphony’s soul to the next world. That phrase haunts the movement until the trumpet-led crisis/climax at bar 118, after which the music seems to accept its fate. The Adagissimo coda, whose 27 measures can exceed five minutes, includes a reference to the fourth of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, “Oft’ denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen” (“Often I Think They’ve Only Gone Out”), in which the singer imagines that his dead children have only gone out for a walk and that he “will go to meet them, on yonder heights, in the sunshine.”
Mahler never heard his symphony; the premiere, from the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter, didn’t take place till 1912. Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic also made the first recording, in 1938; it’s an impassioned reading that runs just under 70 minutes. These days, an average performance lasts around 80 minutes, but Wyn Morris and James Levine, in recordings made in the late 1970s, exceeded 90 minutes, and more recently Mark Gorenstein and Lorin Maazel have exceeded 95. Time is relative, of course: Jascha Horenstein’s 1966 recording with the London Symphony runs 20 minutes longer than Walter’s, but it’s so similarly ferocious, you hardly notice the difference.
Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia didn’t quite achieve their intensity Wednesday, but it was a very fine performance. Wolff did some of his best work before he even took the podium, having seated the first and second violins antiphonally, firsts on his left, seconds on his right. This is the arrangement that Mahler and other composers of his time wrote for; in the Ninth, the firsts and seconds swap ideas in the Andante’s opening D-major statement, and when Freut euch des Lebens starts up, you can hear the seconds beginning each phrase and the firsts finishing it.
The movement timings were middle of the road: 27:30, 16:00, 12:00, and 23:00. But it’s the mark of a good performance that you register the character of it and not whether it’s fast or slow. In the Andante, there was a slight stopped-horn bobble to start, and when the first D-minor section arrived, the mood didn’t seem to change much. But the “Etwas frischer” (“Somewhat fresher”) second D-minor section actually was fresher, and the first Blumine-instigated crisis, starting at bar 92, shrieked in agony. In the development, the bass clarinet (Somin Lee) was exemplary, and so was the transition right afterward from open French horns to snickering stopped. Freut euch des Lebens was a ray of sunshine; the cortège enjoyed a firm underpinning from the timpani (Jennifer Marasti), and toward the end the flute solo (Sho Kato), where it seems the soul is looking to escape, was ethereal. Despite the odd further bobble along the way, the French horns (led by Nicholas Auer) stood out in this movement: assertive, occasionally raw but never crass, always glowing.
Wolff’s second movement gave the right prominence to the second ländler: Mahler marks it to go “ganz langsam” (“quite slow”), and it did. Ländler and waltz were in general well distinguished; the movement, after losing its innocence, built to a dizzy whirl before deconstructing into humorously limping fragments. The Rondo-Burleske was a menacing juggernaut that slowed just enough to let you appreciate the humor of the “Weiber” allusion; the E-flat clarinet (Barret Ham) was cheeky, and the solo trumpet (Benjamin Jones) was prelapsarian in the “Ballsirenen” melody. This movement has to go faster and faster toward the end; here it did so with energy and no loss of clarity.
In 1938, Bruno Walter glided through the Adagio finale in just over 18 minutes; in his 2010 recording with the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Mark Gorenstein required just under 32. Wolff, at 23 minutes, achieved the weight of a slower tempo and the urgency of a faster one. The psychopomp bassoon (Luke Fieweger) was implacable, and so was the contrabassoon (Micah Gharavi) that subsequently plays the same theme. There were melting solos from the English horn (Marshal McClure), the principal cello (Chava Appiah), and the concertmistress (Abigail Fayette).
The coda, where Wolff managed to sound both restful and resigned, brought a novelty: the lights dimmed in the course of those final 27 measures, till by the end the orchestra was barely visible. Only the violins, violas, and cellos were playing at this point, and there were so few notes that I imagine the musicians had no problem performing from memory. I don’t know that the Ninth needs this theatrical touch, but on Wednesday it made for a ghostly, somber conclusion.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.