Mahler 9

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*

Mahler 9 is always stunning in performance. The NYO Prom in 2015 was very fine (cf. here), and I’ve just heard Esa-Pekka Salonen doing it with the Philharmonia (reviewed here; cf. here; see also Harding’s Mahler 6 Prom).

I’ve got a lot of time for Salonen—not just because of the wonderful story about his interview for the LA Phil job! There’s something special about composers (also including Boulez) conducting Mahler, some personal identification with his struggles. Mahler anyway foretold the whole torment of 20th-century history—his music atomised, fragmenting, ersterbend—and we can only hear the 9th symphony with our own ears (that link also referring to Taruskin; see also here). Mahler never got to conduct it, or even hear it; while it remains startlingly modern even today, it’s hard to believe that after its belated UK premiere in 1930 it wasn’t played in the USA (where Mahler was fêted even while he was composing it) until 1931. The symphony only became a pillar of the repertoire with the Mahler craze of the 60s—where I came in. Without entertaining any notions of the moral value of WAM, I have a fantasy of getting Chicago street gangs to sit through it.

Salonen brings out the Philharmonia’s talent for making chamber music amidst grand forces. Not having worked with him, I find him easy on the eye, and he looks comfortable to work with—more selfless, less anguished than Bernstein or Rattle, but far from the schoolmasterly air of Haitink or the aloof conductors of yore. Here’s Bernstein with the Vienna Phil:

and Abbado, always magnificent:

We emerge immersed in the dying sounds of the finale, but as ever, the first movement is a miracle in itself (as commentaries go, Ben Zander has some acute observations, albeit rather hung up on sonata form…). Beginning quietly yet ominously with a rhythmic pattern said to represent Mahler’s own irregular heart-beat, the violins enter with a motif descending from F♯ to E that turns out to be both pervasive and deeply moving—dramatically augmented at the first climax (4.21 in the Abbado performance above) by the 1st violins with a huge leap:

M9 leap

The lyrical aspect of the opening is constantly undermined (sinister brass punctuations from 7.34, a spooky passage from 8.49, more ominous brass from 15.03 and 19.09), becoming still more eery with enigmatic chamber music from 22.48:




The brief hint of tranquility from 24.42 soon fragments again:

M9.1 end

I’ll leave you to immerse yourselves in the following movements—like the Abschied, or Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Mahler 9 live is an overwhelming experience, not to be missed.

Mahler 9 end

For a 2022 performance with Daniel Harding and the Concertgebouw, click here. See also Mahler: quintuplets. For an unlikely connection, see here.

6 thoughts on “Mahler 9

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