Monday, May 7, 2018

Simon Rattle Conducts Mahler No. 9

On Friday evening I went to the David Geffen Hall to hear a concert I'd eagerly been awaiting all season as Simon Rattle, making his first New York appearance as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 (1908-1909). 

Although this was not really the composer's last work - he in fact lived long enough to complete a substantial portion of the Symphony No. 10 - it certainly was his final word on the inevitability of death, a subject that had preoccupied him in one form or another all his life and only became more urgent after his heart condition had been diagnosed.  This is one point on which all the commentators are in agreement.  As Alban Berg wrote in 1912:
"This whole [first] movement is dominated by the presentiment of death, which makes itself known again and again over the movement's course. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense eruptions following the most gentle passages, and of course this intensity is strongest in the horrible moment where death becomes a certainty, where, in the middle of the deepest, most poignant longing for life, death makes itself known 'with the greatest violence.' Against that, there is no resistance."
And Leonard Bernstein, certainly the twentieth century's foremost champion of Mahler's music, is equally emphatic:
"The Ninth is the ultimate farewell … the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up."
Not that the entire symphony is one long funeral march.   The second movement Ländler is a relaxed if idiosyncratic take on the Austrian folk dance and a reflection of the composer's intense love of nature.   In the final movement, Mahler looks beyond his own mortality to new horizons in music itself.  The symphony has no home key - the movements progress from D to C to A minor and finally end in D-flat.   This abandonment of traditional tonality was to have a huge effect on Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School in the coming years.

I don't think there's any question that Simon Rattle is the finest conductor now active, whether in his old post with the Berliner Philharmoniker or presently with the London Symphony.  He is consistently able to draw from even the most familiar works new shades of meaning.  I had seen him last season brilliantly conduct both Mahler's No. 6 and No. 7 at Carnegie Hall with two different orchestras, and he was equally impressive at Friday evening's performance.  I believe if Mahler were still alive he would very much approve of Rattle's interpretations of his music.  At Friday evening's concert, the performance of the final movement adagio was particularly noteworthy.  Marked Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend ("very slowly and restrained"), the composer here followed the stormy third movement Rondo Burleske with a passage that in its serene acceptance of the inexorable approach of death transcended mere resignation to become a stately affirmation of life itself.  To drive the point home, Mahler quoted in this movement music from Kindertotenlieder.  Taken from the fourth of the five songs, Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen ("I often think: they have only just gone out"), the musical quote makes clear that it is not only the occasion of one's own death that one must learn to accept but also that of one's loved ones.
"Sie sind uns nur voraus gegangen,/ und werden nicht wieder nach Hause verlangen. /Wir holen sie ein auf jenen Höh'n (They have just gone out ahead of us, /and will not be thinking of coming home. /We go to meet them on yonder heights)"
Then at the end comes the sustained "dying away" that only a superb conductor such as Mr. Rattle can manage to sustain successfully for the six or seven minutes it lasts before slowly fading into silence.

I very much enjoyed the fact that there was only one work on the program.  This allowed me to better focus on the work at hand.   Too often in a situation where a mammoth work is to be performed orchestras begin with a much shorter piece that no one in the audience has much interest in hearing followed by a lengthy intermission.  The No. 9 is such a huge complex work that it is much better served when the audience is able to give it the benefit of its full attention.

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