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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #9

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 471624-2 81:03
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A great orchestra slightly adrift.

Gustav Mahler died before ever hearing his Ninth, his last complete work. As a result, writers – at least since Redlich, Berg, and Adorno – have regarded the symphony as his requiem, the composer's premonition of his death.

I hate to spoil a good story, but I don't quite buy it. After all, most of Mahler's works, from the early Das klagende Lied on, are death-haunted or heaven-haunted, sometimes both. To me, the Ninth expresses the world of Das Lied von der Erde, this time instrumentally, rather than vocally. Das Lied sings of the transitory and of the Orient, using a "chromatic pentatonicism" invented by Mahler. I suspect Mahler didn't feel done with the idiom, and it pervades the outer movements.

I've heard few truly bad performances of this work. To get through it at all, an orchestra has to have a certain amount of chops. The orchestration is often transparent, so much so that a London musician once remarked that he felt "naked" playing it. Ensemble becomes, as they say, a bitch. Consequently, the choice lies not between sloppy or tight, but between emptily pretty on the one hand and emotionally goopy on the other. I've heard tremendous performances of this symphony where the orchestral sound was less than beautiful or even beautiful to an unearthly degree. I've heard performances that died from emotional coldness and from emotional excess. For me, success in this symphony comes down to how well the music moves, how well the account coheres. The movement of the musical argument (both how it moves and that it moves) assumes paramount importance, again mainly in the outer movements.

The symphony contains four: "Andante comodo"; "In the tempo of a leisurely Ländler. Somewhat clumsy and very coarse," ; "Rondo-Burleske. Allegro assai. Very defiant"; "Adagio. Very slowly and restrained". Ironically (since Mahler hated that work), the Ninth follows the same general structure as Tchaikovsky's "Pathètique." The opening to the symphony right away sets a trap for an orchestra because of its bareness. This music justifies the epithet "naked" – chamber music for a huge ensemble. A striving theme builds to a climax about twenty minutes away and then falls back. The counterpoint, intense and incredibly detailed, challenges orchestral clarity. In a live performance, yet, Abbado and the Berliners in general keep things beautifully clear. Where they occasionally fall down, however, is in the matter of rhythm. At times, they don't play exactly together, and the tactus is just about obliterated, but they always recover. Abbado takes the usual "death-obsessed" view of the work and, to me, gins things up to desperate, if not hysterical levels. Most accounts I've heard approach the movement in this way. I prefer something cooler.

Abbado's Ländler, a dance the country cousin of the waltz, emphasizes its "clumsy" and "coarse" aspects and never lets you forget the peasant origins of this dance. The Berliners perform ensemble miracles. You can almost see the dancers stumbling. The movement pays homage to folk high spirits. Adorno, typically overreaching, calls this a "dance of death," and he's absolutely wrong for almost all of it. However, it has to fit his notion of this as a "death" symphony. He can only make his case at the end, a bleak wind-down of a coda about two minutes long, as forlorn as a balloon sighing out its last bit of gas. Even so, one has to stretch quite a bit to call the movement a Totentanz.

A totally clueless contemporary critic called Mahler a "homophonic" composer – that is, a composer who confined himself to chorales or melody-cum-accompaniment figures. The critic, so wrongheaded as to fall under the suspicion of deaf, stung Mahler to this reply. Mahler is routinely far more contrapuntal than, say, Beethoven, Dvořák, or Tchaikovsky. I would go so far as to call him obsessively contrapuntal, even in something as early as the First Symphony (the "Caillot" movement, for example) on. This entire symphony proceeds along polyphonic lines, and this movement, "dedicated to my brothers in Apollo" (ie, fellow musicians) is Mahlerian counterpoint on steroids, brought to the point of satire. "You want counterpoint? Choke on it." Yet, like the waltzes from Rosenkavalier, the satire transcends itself to become gorgeous art. Abbado pushes the marking "defiant" to its manic limit, while being able to relax in the slower, quieter sections.

As a matter of historical record, Mahler's middle movements found more success with both musicians and public than his outer ones. The last movement brings with it the problems of the first raised to a whole other level, mainly because of its slower tempo. The problem of coherence, of sheer forward movement, overwhelms some conductors. For example, in his last recorded account of this, Bernstein wanted to wring so much Feeling and Significance out of every note, that the account sank beneath a bog of interpretive treacle. Abbado does better, but he doesn't begin with much promise. The next note always seems to arrive with an effort. Even so, Abbado makes it almost half-way through before the music grinds to a halt. He manages to recover before the end, but one hears a lot of dead space in between. The Berlin strings again perform miracles of clarity and richness of tone, but Abbado sabotages them by insisting on a ponderous line. He also hits climaxes too early, so that when Mahler asks for even more, the orchestra has nowhere to go.

This is a good Ninth, but not a special one. Abbado certainly does better than Karajan (a conductor I'm seldom fond of) with the Berlin, and it's the orchestra that lifts this recording into consideration, rather than the conductor. My favorite Ninths remain Szell, Horenstein (1966), Walter (1961 – the one I imprinted on), and Dohnányi. Of these, I find in Dohnányi's account the best combination of gorgeous playing and penetrating interpretation (on London/British Decca 458902-2). The Abbado rises slightly higher than the usual and falls far short of these others. One slight annoyance: for some reason, DG has seen fit to include two minutes of audience bravos and applause. It reminds me of sitcoms that need a laugh track to cue the audience that the jokes are funny.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.