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Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler’s 9th

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Egon Schiele, Tod und Mann II, 1911, oil on canvas, Leopold Museum, Vienna
Egon Schiele, Tod und Mann II, 1911, oil on canvas, Leopold Museum, Vienna

The San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mahler – Symphony No. 9 in D major (1910)

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony stood alone last Thursday at Davies Hall, as the San Francisco Symphony prepared for its European tour. It has become normal practice to schedule this work with a long, rather liquid “intermission” preceding it, instead of any music. And audiences intuitively understand why. They have signed on for an emotional catharsis.

The Mahler Ninth is a “Death” Symphony in deadly earnest, similar to the Shostakovich 15th. There is nothing cute about the miseries it contains, like the hanging of “Till Eulenspiegel,” or merely theatrical, such as the rifle-shots in Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory.” Mahler had recently been diagnosed with the heart infection which would ultimately kill him, and this work is his “Death and Transfiguration” in purely orchestral terms. One of two, really, if one leaves out Das Lied von der Erde. It seems that having completed it, the dying man felt so energized he decided to give death another whirl with the Tenth Symphony! And there is no reason to suppose it would have been any less successful than the Ninth, if Mahler had only lived to work out the kinks of orchestration. As it stands, the Tenth Symphony remains a blanker tombstone than Mahler might have desired, since musicologists disagree wildly about how deeply to chisel and what to inscribe, but both works travel the road of misery from yearning to acceptance and at the end find themselves six feet under.

This listener has been familiar with every note contained in the Mahler 9th Symphony for forty-nine years. But listening to it never gets any easier. It is not a pleasant piece of music. To know this work is to conduct a lifetime love-affair with an infuriating but compelling partner. One falls in and out of love again repeatedly. One may even decide one doesn’t like the piece—yet return to it addictively—unable to get enough of its seeming negativity. In the end, one simply yields. That is the simple proof of greatness. And perhaps of love.

Mahler stacks the deck against happiness early-on in the Ninth Symphony. An ambiguous, eccentric heart-rhythm opens the piece, followed by a few notes on the harp—which sound hopeful—but are immediately interrupted by a nasty muted trumpet snarl of Schoenbergian unpleasantness. More ominously, as the considerable lyricism of the piece gets under way, it becomes apparent that a lingering orchestral trill, seemingly there just to cushion the texture, is designed to hold things back and make progress uncooperative throughout. So from the very beginning, the “Andante Commodo” seems anything but comfortable. Mahler’s rhythm is exactly what one would expect from the rowing of a boat, yet this craft is lumbering and clearly taking on water. And as it finally shudders its way to cruising speed, massive, overladen and wobbling, one is aware nothing good will come of the journey.

The development of a symphonic movement is generally seen as the working out of a struggle. What differs this time is that the music loses the struggle. There are three big developmental climaxes in Mahler’s first movement, each more unpleasant and interruptive than the one preceding, and each telling the story of Mahler’s mechanically uncooperative heart. The first one trails off into a menacing digestive burble, quietly punctuated by off-kilter drumbeats and the mocking trumpet snarl that opened the piece—now grown fully grim. The second climax, about twelve minutes into the movement, is perhaps the most fascinating from a compositional standpoint. The music has finally managed a sense of cymballed triumph and sustainable sweep, when suddenly, with a shrieking slither in the trumpets and horns, it nosedives full-tilt into the engine-room of misery. As the music drops from under the listener into the the abyss, a sustained gaseous note on the bass clarinet licks up like an impassive blue flame in hell. In the long history of musical creepiness, this is one of the great moments—once heard—never forgotten. The final kebash on hope occurs with the third climax, an orchestral heart attack, plain and simple. Mahler takes the dysfuctional rhythm which opens the work and hammers the listener over the head with it in full octaves.

As the music slowly emerges from this, we realize the protagonist doesn’t. The purpose of the trumpet snarls now becomes evident, as they transform into a mocking funeral march. And the wobbling orchestral turns, which have so destabilized forward motion, now briefly become consolational church bells in its wake. A subsequent bit of nostalgic reminiscence for harp doesn’t change the outcome, and the movement ends with an eerie white-out from the flute. Every modern person knows this sound. It is the electrical noise an ICU monitor makes when the patient has flatlined. Mahler seems to have invented the notion—if not the machine.

The first movement pretty much takes care of the “death” part of things. But the listener will need to experience two more earthly chapters before reaching “transfiguration” in the Finale. And these movements, like many inner ones in the Mahler canon, are problematic. The second, which explores dance rhythms at their most galumphing and graceless, seems hypertrophic for the points it wants to make. Dancing is tricky in concert music. Walton was evidently good at it, and his Violin Concerto contains moments of dance-floor seductiveness. But one senses no dancer’s joy in Mahler’s explorations—indeed something more like hatred for the very notion. So at its best, the second movement is sardonically interesting—but too repetitious and too heavy. There is a similar effect to be found in Eduard Tubin’s Sixth Symphony, where the composer so detested crazed-sounding dance orchestras playing “hot” jazz, that out of loathing he composed a compelling movement to outdo them! Mahler, himself, was aware of his tendency to ruin ethereality with pop vulgarities and, indeed, consulted with Freud because of it. One would want to ask Alma if he knew how to dance from high spirits alone…

Mahler’s Third Movement is labelled “Rondo-Burlesque,” and from the perspective of our times seems to be headed straight for Hindemith. This is an accomplished tour de force of counterpoint and energy. Unlike Hindemith, though, whose music often seems to revel in Bach-like complexity without emotional agenda, Mahler is never stuck in emotional “neutral.” He appears to describe the high energy bustle of urban life, just as earlier he seemed fixated on bovine rural amusements. And, as the title suggests, he mocks most of it. But sarcasm is a cheap thrill by now, so it is fortunate that Mahler steers the movement towards the symphony’s only moment of genuine hope: a heartbreakingly beautiful descending trumpet melody of earthly yearning. This is the only place in the work where one senses a young person’s nostalgia—the ardent sense of loss over someone else’s regret—accompanied by the notion that if only one approaches life idealistically enough, it won’t happen to you…

Except that in Mahler’s case, of course, we know “it” has already happened to him, and now only the thought of consolation remains for those left behind. And that is what the Adagio movement of Mahler’s Ninth supplies. Very much as in the Bruckner Ninth, Mahler tones down everything else he might be tempted to do and lets a long-limbed string melody carry the essence of the symphony forward, topped by golden horns. As the movement progresses, the music achieves an eerie detachment, like that of St. Exupéry’s Little Prince standing all alone on an asteroid. And indeed, “otherworldly” and “timeless” seem to repeat in the mind throughout, no matter how big the climactic moments. The conclusion of the work is an extended disappearing act—tiny hushed phrases—a pervasive sense of sweet farewell—and in the last four notes, methinks, the very name of the composer himself: Gus…tav…Mah…ler………..

The reader will notice that no mention of the performance has been made so far. That is because it was hard to determine just what level of commitment and excitement would emerge on tour. The rendition I heard was accurate but extremely cautious. It tended to bog down in the first movement, due to a tempo fractionally slower than usual, and to Michael Tilson Thomas’s seeming lack of a killer instinct in his downbeat. As with Edo de Waart, one feels that MTT seldom lets an orchestra’s aggressions truly loose. The orchestra performed with beautiful accuracy—something which cannot be said of Zubin Mehta’s recent Mahler 5th with the Israel Philharmonic. Only missing, I thought, was the last level of exaltation from the San Francisco horns. MTT has his horn section playing together, but rather bluntly. They do not seem to play very much off each other for overtones, the way the brass section of the Concertgebouw does. It will be intriguing to see how the tour has gone. Little things like that distinguish between a world-class orchestra, which the San Francisco Symphony definitely is—and a transcendent one.

2 thoughts on “Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler’s 9th

  1. Yes, a great and thought-provoking article indeed!

    I have had one technical pet peeve about this piece for years. The Mahler 9th is frequently labeled as being in D major, as it is at the top of Steven’s review. However, only the first movement is in that key. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of this work is the progression of key relationships, some rather oblique, through the four movements: D major – C major – A minor – D flat major.The richness and poignancy of the half-step drop in tonality from the first to fourth movements is quite striking. I’ve occasionally even seen the piece labeled as being in D flat major, which makes just as little sense as calling it in D major. There is really no point in assigning an overall key label to a work that has four equally important and very different keys, arbitrarily basing it on that of the first movement. I would prefer to label the Mahler 9th as just being “Symphony No. 9,” period.

    Parenthetically, the same issue exists with Mahler’s 5th Symphony, as only one out of its five movements is in the usually advertised key of C sharp minor. Yet the 6th Symphony has three of its four movements in A minor, so that key label is certainly justified. Obviously Mahler was extremely conscious of key relationships and implications throughout his career. We should not oversimplify the issue by assigning keys where they are not appropriate.

  2. And one of the most striking things to me about the 9th, especially the first
    movement, is the constant turning-on-a-dime between major and minor sonorities
    – very slippery, disorienting, and sublime.

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