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Robust Mahler 9th Aligned With Mercury


Nothing, we’ve been told, says “death” like Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Paul Bekker, riffing on the composer’s Third Symphony movement titles, dubbed the Ninth “What Death tells me.” Leonard Bernstein concluded that the 20th century “is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet.” Lewis Thomas, in his “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,” found “death everywhere, the dying of everything, the death of humanity.” Saturday evening at Sanders Theater, however, Channing Yu and Mercury Orchestra gave the symphony a robust reading that was full of life.

Mahler himself was full of life in the summer of 1909, when he drafted the Ninth. It’s true that in 1907 he had been diagnosed with a valvular defect, probably the result of recurrent throat infections, but that was hardly a death sentence. He would go on to conduct a season and a half at the New York Philharmonic and complete a draft of his Tenth Symphony before developing the bacterial endocarditis of which he died in May 1911.

What we have in the Ninth is four essays on life in four different keys: D major, C major, A minor, and D-flat major. The slow-fast-fast-slow layout is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique: a big, agonized opening movement, a dance movement, a rondo, and a grave, stoic finale. Mahler stuffs the symphony with references and flashbacks as he takes stock of his life in the summer of 1909. After two years as principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera (where he was in competition with Toscanini), he’s about to become principal conductor at the struggling New York Philharmonic. It’s a turbulent time. “O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O Liebe! Verwehte!” (“O Youth! Vanished! O Love! Blown away!”) he writes on the orchestral draft of the opening Andante comodo, and later “Leb’ wol! Leb’ wol!” (“Farewell! Farewell!”). At the end of the final Adagio he writes “O Schönheit! Liebe! Lebt wol! Lebt wol!” (“O Beauty! Love! Farewell! Farewell!”) and “Welt! Lebe wohl!” (“World! Farewell!”)

There’s certainly a sense of leavetaking in the symphony — if not to life, at least to much that had been in Mahler’s life. At the outset of the Andante, the second violins’ falling major second seems to recall the beginning of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, commonly known as Les adieux. It’s as well to remember, however, that Beethoven actually gave the sonata’s three movements the titles “Das Lebewohl” (“Farewell”), “Abwesenheit” (“Absence”), and “Das Wiedersehen” (“The Return”), and that he dedicated the piece to his patron Archduke Rudolph, who in 1809 had to leave Vienna in advance of Napoleon’s invasion but did return in 1810. That falling major second also recalls the “Ewig” final notes of Mahler’s previous symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, and it suggests the Johann Strauss waltz, Freut euch des Lebens (“Enjoy Life”), that he quotes more fully in the movement’s development. But the allusion that dominates the Andante is a flashback to the discarded “Blumine” movement of his First Symphony, a seven-note figure that keeps causing the D-minor second subject to crash. “Blumine” itself was inspired by Johanna Richter, the soprano with whom Mahler was infatuated when they were both at the Cassel Opera in 1884. Was the reference subconscious? Or is Johanna the woman Mahler had in mind when he wrote of vanished love? It’s not likely to have been Alma — she didn’t meet Walter Gropius till the following year.   

The second movement glances at Franz Lehár’s 1905 hit operetta Die lustige Witwe (“The Merry Widow”), which Gustav and Alma attended and thoroughly enjoyed. Marked “Im tempo des gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb” (“In the tempo of a comfortable ländler. Somewhat clumsy and very rough”), it pits two country ländlers, one bumpkin-like and one wallflowerish, against a pair of bad-tempered city waltzes, the first of which quotes the gruppetto motif from Graf Danilo’s “O kommet doch, o kommt, ihr Ballsirenen” (“Oh come then, oh come, you dance sirens”). The savage Rondo-Burleske third movement makes a humorous reference to the Merry Widow’s “Weiber” chorus, but it’s the “dance siren” gruppetto, poignantly introduced by solo trumpet, that defines the movement’s central lyric episode, and then this same motif returns to pervade the Adagio finale.

Channing Yu leads Mercury Orchestra (Robert Torres photo)

More than The Merry Widow is on offer in the finale. The primary theme suggests the hymn tune Eventide (“Abide with Me”), which it’s thought Mahler might have heard at the funeral of New York deputy fire chief Charles Kruger in February 1908. At bar 8 Mahler recalls the phrase “Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein” (“I would rather be in Heaven”) from his song Urlicht (“Primal Light”). At bar 11, the rising five-note major scale that started off the second movement reappears, in the minor, as the solo bassoon’s spectral psychopomp theme. And in the “Adagissimo” coda, Mahler alludes to the fourth of his 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 simply gone out for a walk and that he “will go to meet them, on yonder heights, in the sunshine.”

The most recent live Mahler Ninth I had heard was from Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, March 2018 in Symphony Hall. On that occasion the orchestra numbered 126. Saturday at Sanders, Yu led a modest ensemble of 80 — more than enough to fill the hall. He had the harps stage right and the percussion stage left, with the winds and brass centrally seated behind the strings. Like Zander, Yu deployed his violins antiphonally, firsts on his left, seconds on his right. This seating was standard in Mahler’s day, and you can hear why it matters when the firsts and seconds converse with each other at the beginning of the Andante, and later (bar 147) when the seconds begin each phrase of the Freut euch des Lebens quotation and the firsts finish it.  

One can hardly talk about the Mahler Ninth without discussing tempo. At the end of the Andante, in the fair copy of the score, Mahler marked a duration of 20 to 23 minutes. He had, of course, only played the movement on his piano; he did not live to hear the symphony performed. Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere in 1912, also made the first recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic, in 1938; he took nearly 25 minutes for the Andante, 70 for the symphony all told. Some 80 years later, timings of 80 to 85 minutes are common, and 90+ (James Levine, Riccardo Chailly) is not unusual. Mark Gorenstein has even clocked in at 95. Mahler marked the Adagio “Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend” (“Very slow and holding back even more”), but conductors’ notions of “slow” and “holding back” have ranged from Walter’s 18:16 to Gorenstein’s 31:55. That said, the Ninth is a symphony where such extremes can work. The approach matters more than the tempos.

Yu’s four movements clocked in at approximately 28, 16, 14, and 27 minutes, for a total of 85. The outer movements, in particular, are hard to hold together at such expansive tempos, but Yu succeeded. The orchestra did itself proud; if the timbre was rough and raw in spots, that was preferable, in my book, to polite and polished. Textures were reasonably transparent; the one area where balance was problematic was the horns, which too often seemed too loud.    

The Andante is a war between two thematic groups, a resigned, consoling one in D major represented by that falling major second, and a turbulent, unsettled one in D minor with the “Blumine” allusions. They battle it out through exposition and development until the D-minor group precipitates a cortège that Mahler marked “Wie ein schwerer Kondukt” (“Like a heavy funeral procession”).  That concludes the development; the recapitulation brings a bit of reconciliation, and then in the coda flute and horn engineer a temporary escape for the soul, though at the end a solo oboe drops agonizingly from F-sharp to E (the falling major second) but not to D, the home key.

Yu didn’t distinguish the two thematic groups much in terms of tempo, but the ferocity with which the orchestra attacked the D-minor group made the point. I was pleased to hear him underplay Mahler’s “Allegro moderato” marking at the end of the exposition; this agonized “Blumine” climax is actually more effective when the conductor doesn’t speed up. The seminal four-note figure that first appears in bar 3 was played by the second harp forte, as marked (this isn’t always the case); bar 4’s seminal five-note figure from the stopped horns, also marked forte, was rather weaker. Climaxes in general were powerful and not rushed; the funeral march sounded angry, almost militant. A highlight of the coda was Anne Kim’s flute, though in the duet it seemed overbalanced by the solo horn.

The second movement is another kind of war, a dance dust-up between city and country, waltz and ländler, neither side very appealing. In the middle of the waltzes’ initial turn the first ländler tries to retake the floor but is rudely shunted aside. Yu took that first ländler at a moderate tempo and gave it a rustic flavor; his palpably faster waltzes tightroped between decadence and cynicism as they flitted about the ballroom. The second ländler, however, was undercharacterized. Mahler marked it “ganz langsam” (very slow), but Yu’s tempo wasn’t, and his transitions in and out of this section seemed too smooth. Toward the end great work from the lower winds and brass and then the percussion led to a cheeky finish.

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 or so minutes of snarling, vertiginous polyphony. Shrieking winds and pitch-black trombones and tuba gave those critics a slap in the face; the “Weiber” interludes provided respite. A brief patch of trumpet insecurity introduced the transient bliss of the lyric episode, but the bigger problem here was the lack of transcendence. I did appreciate the way Yu resisted the temptation to speed up when the clarinets, both A and E-flat, infiltrate paradise and mock the gruppetto motif. And the main section, when it returned, was as raucous as you could want.

The Adagio finale contrasted the strings’ rich, extroverted hymn tune with the expressionless B section, stripped of all flesh first by solo bassoon and then by contrabassoon and cellos. Gradually, this section warms, as if Mahler were accepting the certainty (but not the immediate certainty) of death. Yu gave particular weight and power to the trombones’ four-note figure at bar 118 (so notoriously and mysteriously missing in Leonard Bernstein’s 1979 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic), and then to the violins’ anguished descent at bar 124, when all resistance melts away. All the same, the movement slipped by a shade too easily, even at Yu’s reverent pace. The coda was serene but not quite endless.

It’s been a while since Greater Boston heard the Ninth. The BSO hasn’t offered it in Symphony Hall since 2016; the only local performances since then have been Hugh Wolff’s with the New England Conservatory Philharmonia in November 2017 and Zander’s with the BPYO in March 2018. It’s a difficult symphony to play; Mahler treats the orchestra like a chamber ensemble, with solos popping up everywhere. Interpretative quibbles aside, Mercury stood and delivered, and for a bargain ticket price ($25-$30). Kudos to Yu and the ensemble for keeping the Ninth alive and kicking.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

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  1. One small correction: the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra played the Ninth in October 2019, also in Sanders Theater.

    Comment by Reuben Stern — July 17, 2023 at 4:29 pm

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