by Steven Pisano
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was at Carnegie Hall recently for a four-concert stand featuring works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Ives, and Mahler, under the batons of Adam Fischer and Michael Tilson Thomas. The final night featured Gustav Mahler's last finished symphony, the Ninth Symphony, which actually was premiered by the VPO back in 1912, with Bruno Walter at the podium. It did not receive its premiere in the United States until 1931 in Boston. It is a work every bit as unsettling, mysterious, and mind-blowing today as it must have been when it first was played at the beginning of the twentieth century, just before the First World War engulfed Europe. Mahler was not particularly revered as a composer at that time, though he enjoyed some renown as a conductor, and part of the story surrounding the Ninth was that Mahler never heard it performed, since he died of heart disease at age 50 in 1911.
“In it something is said that I have had on the tip of my tongue for some time,” he wrote to Walter in 1909. For many, the symphony is haunted by themes of death. Mahler's 4-year-old daughter had died of scarlet fever a couple of years before the work was composed, and he himself was first diagnosed with heart problems shortly thereafter. On top of that, he had written Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle on the theme of children's deaths based on poems by Friedrich Ruckert written in the early 1830s after Ruckert's own two children had died of scarlet fever as well. (By a strange coincidence, Kindertotenlieder was also performed here in the city last week by the opera singer Lucas Meachem at the Crypt Sessions, who performed with his wife Irina at the piano. They are expecting their first child in a number of months. A post about that concert will appear here soon.)
The Ninth Symphony is written in four movements: I, andante comodo; II, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb; III, Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig; and IV, Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend. The first and last movements are slower and quieter than the other two. The last movement is particularly unsettling, and ends with a long drawn-out gasp after a sudden false crescendo that seems like the end, until it is not.
Before that meditative, transcendental finale, however, Mahler brings a maelstrom of brassy booming sound to the third movement. The orchestra loses its strings-heavy emphasis and the hall just fills with sounds so modern and revolutionary it is hard to accept that this was written over a century ago. In many ways, to me, it just seems we are still not ready to fully embrace and understand this outpouring of feelings, motifs, and thoughts that Mahler brings to the score.
Michael Tilson Thomas was a steady conductor throughout, though on a few occasions he reached down with his baton right into the orchestra as if he might leap off the podium and wave his baton in some of the musicians faces directly. Concertmaster Rainer Honeck handled an otherworldly violin solo later in the work with a haunting delicacy that made the audience hold its breath.