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MAHLER Symphony No.9: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bĕlohlávek (conductor), Barbican, 3.12.2005 (JPr)



I shall get extremely boring if I begin (or end) each review for this website with a tirade however I will probably soon get all my ‘pet-hates’ out of the way and just be able to concentrate on the musical performances but again I must sound-off … this time about programme notes. Perhaps on this occasion it did not matter because the BBC Symphony Orchestra (outside the Proms) never attracts much of an audience as they are probably regarded as not much more than public recording sessions for BBC Radio 3. Nevertheless the concert halls need a new audience for classical music … there is little worthwhile music education in schools, Classic FM play soundbites (mostly) and the published literature on this type of music is often unreadable for those without a music degree.

So at the Barbican on 3 December although the audience was better than usual for the BBC SO it was still well short of capacity and this despite hearing their Chief Conductor Designate Jiří Bĕlohlávek … conducting Mahler, a composer whose music he seems to have been born for and for which he has full measure of all its cultural and musical contexts.

A gourmet meal is, of course, a sum of its ingredients but its final impact is also wrapped up in appearance, smell and taste allied to the chef’s expertise and as such is an ‘experience’. Malcolm Hayes’s programme note appears to regard Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as nothing more than its crochets and quavers and its biographical nature is dismissed in about five lines whilst several extended paragraphs try and described the indescribable … and by that I mean music. It is just the same as trying to put a flavour into words. His analysis of the first movement includes noting ‘a rhythmic figure articulated across the main beat … a second theme in a restless D minor … the cross-beat rhythm.’ What does this mean to the general public? Music must ‘strike a chord’ within the listeners’ psyche otherwise what is its point? Most composers lead insular lives, distilling something of this inner world into their compositions and this must be considered.

In the summer of 1910 Alban Berg was allowed to study the full score of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and wrote to his future wife his very pertinent analysis - ‘ … Once again I have played through the score … the first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler ever wrote. It is the expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depths – before death comes. For me he comes irresistibly. The whole movement is permeated by premonitions of death. Again and again it crops up, all the elements of terrestrial dreaming culminate in it … most potently of course in the colossal passage where this premonition becomes certainty, where in the midst of the höchste Kraft (highest spirit) of almost painful joy in life Death itself is announced mit höchster Gewalt (with maximum force) ’.  Now that is more like it!

The entire first movement is a series of subtle transformations of the three-note figure introduced at the outset by harp and horns, a primal motif apparently based on the opening of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Les Adieux (Op. 81a), which Beethoven linked with ‘Lebe wohl(‘Farewell’). Permeating the start of the Symphony and recurring later towards its end is the clear evocation of an unsteady then failing heartbeat. None of this we get in the programme note.

Mahler himself considered his Ninth Symphony tritely as ‘a very welcome increase in my little family’. He made this comment to Bruno Walter and it probably conceals his real thoughts on the work that he never heard a proper note of in performance … a fact I am sure he was quite content with! Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is, like those of Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák and Bruckner, his last completed one and it may have been as though this own music was in certain way (another) prognosis of an illness destined to be terminal.

For the second movement we need to be told we are having a night out in Mahler's Vienna, the dance movement that follows contrasts a country-yokel Ländler against two ill-tempered waltzes (the first is a pastiche of a theme from The Merry Widow waltz by Franz Lehár whilst the second is ‘danced’ by the trombones accompanied by oompah-pah tubas) and an almost reticent minuet that is based on the Andante's theme that we live but are resigned that we must die. At one point the Ländler seemingly tries to push the waltz group off the dance floor but it loses out. The Rondo-Burleske of the third movement exhibits Mahler’s use of counterpoint with yet more Lehár (here we get the ‘Wie die Weiber’ chorus from Merry Widow) against a wistful, idealistic trumpet melody (now the Merry Widow waltz theme again) that is promptly assaulted by the cynical, squally, mocking A and E-flat clarinets – the music is riddled with sarcasm. There has been an effort to strive towards the light from the darkness but deep resignation is the emotion most experienced here and a feeling that nothing was ever good enough.

The trumpet melody reasserts itself in the Adagio finale, where the chorale-like main theme recalls ‘Abide with Me’ and is haunted by a quiet melody from the low bassoon. (OUP’s The Mahler Companion [editors Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson, 2002] has an interesting footnote to the analysis of the final Adagio of this Symphony, where some apparently reliable documentation is provided for Mahler's awareness of that famous anthem, ‘Abide with Me,’ the tune that should come to mind every time anyone listens to this plaintive hymn-like passage. I searched the programme note in vain for anything about this too!) The last moments can be considered to be almost an Adagissimo; these important final 27 bars can often exceed five minutes or more in length during a performance. Here there is a quotation from the fourth song – ‘Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen’ (‘Often I think that they have only stepped out’) -- from Mahler's song cycle Kindertotenlieder, where the singer still believes he will find his dead children alive.

Mahler had of course lost his four-year-old daughter Maria to diphtheria and scarlet fever in 1907 and had been put that same year under a death sentence from his doctor (and would later die from bacteriological endocarditis in 1911), it is not a great leap of imagination to see why musicologist Paul Bekker subtitled the Ninth Symphony ‘What Death Tells Me’! It is important to note however that Mahler at one point wrote across the pages of the Andante's score, ‘O youth! Vanished! O love! Blown away!’ Mahler knew that his days were numbered, though clearly this movement (and the entire symphony) is as much about the nostalgia (or death) of love (for Alma) as his own impending demise. In conclusion I must concur with Leonard Bernstein who noted: ‘In his Ninth Symphony he succeeds in writing perhaps the greatest farewell symphony ever written by anybody.’

Perhaps I have been paying insufficient attention but I was struck by what seemed to me an unusual arrangement of the orchestra. I guess we had first and second violins on either side of the conductor, with violas filling in also on the right behind the violins but cellos, double basses and harps to the left. I was struck by how clearly almost every instrument could be heard because of this and if you wanted to hear the horn, trumpet, clarinets and timpani you could and they, and other significant contributions, always seemed to stand out from the mêlée.

Czech Maestro, Jiří Bĕlohlávek is a conductor who always seems to have the ability to surpass even the highest expectations and it is clear he knows the score in the minutest detail. Not only that but he has the ability to impart to his orchestra the essentials of his interpretation and make them respond keenly and spontaneously. He scrupulously followed his overall design for this symphony from the very first note and despite the shifting emotions of the inner movements inexorably cranked up the terrible anguish. I thought the principal horn (who always has such an important part in Mahler) started a bit tentatively but benefited like several others in the orchestra from the conductor’s focus on dynamic contrasts and orchestral balance. The horn player throughout gave a faultlessly nuanced performance and was well worthy of being especially singled out and applauded by the conductor after the music stopped. Overall there were impressive instrumental timbres from virtuoso musicians probably playing as though their very jobs were at stake, which of course they might very well be with their new chief conductor taking up his position in time for the Proms in July.


© Jim Pritchard






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