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Mahler's Ninth Symphony: Christopher Maltman (baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 25.2.2011 (JPr)

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Symphony No 9 in D

There was a very short first half to this concert but it was a significant one: having recently sat through the worst performance of the 'Songs of a Wayfaring Lad' I am ever likely to hear, given by Wolfgang Holzmair, I was privileged to hear Christopher Maltman singing the best one at which I may ever be present.

I am constantly trying to encourage people to consider Mahler's music as fundamental 'operatic' and the many rather 'precious' interpretations of his Lieder can argue against this because it is perceived to be the necessary 'Art' of a Lieder singer to internalize them and rein in their emotions as a result. Maltman brought out the meaning of Mahler's poetry through his expressive face and voice and, with a bitingly sardonic early 'Schatz', it was obvious this was going to be a unique account of these over-familiar songs about the misery of a lost love. Each one was treated as a mini-aria; 'Ich hab' ein glühend Messer' was sung with clenched teeth ferocity and an almost psychopathic fervour, as though Maltman was auditioning for Alberich - a role he could do well. The wonderful range of Maltman's voice was never better revealed than in the last lines of the final song as it descended from 'alles' to 'Traum' ('alles, Lieb und Leid, und Welt und Traum!'). He was quite brilliant and even though Mahler utilises a fairly large orchestra I luxuriated in the spaciousness of Christoph Eschenbach's accompaniment of these rather lightly-scored songs.

Mahler's Ninth Symphony was composed in 1909 and 1910, and was the last symphony that he completed. Probably as a result of that it is the one that might be heard most in 2011, the centenary of the composer's death. Whether it needs three performances in a week - with two to be conducted by Valery Gergiev with the LSO in coming days - is perhaps overdosing the restricted audience for Mahler a bit too much and may explain the rather less than full Royal Festival Hall.

Having recently learned of the infidelity of his wife Alma, Mahler he was suffering a deep personal crisis and this symphony is considered to be the most intense, self-pitying - possibly neurotic - of his symphonic works. Although the symphony has the traditional number of movements - four - it is unusual in that the first and last are slow rather than fast.

The work opens with a hesitant, syncopated motif (which some commentators - most notably Leonard Bernstein - have suggested represents in music Mahler's irregular heartbeat) which is to return at the height of the movement's development as a sudden intrusion of 'death in the midst of life', announced by trombones and marked within the score 'with the greatest force'. Moreover, the main theme also quotes - through three descending notes - the opening motif of Beethoven's Les Adieux piano sonata. Les Adieux means 'farewell' and Mahler wrote that word at this point in the sketch for the music. This piano sonata coincidentally marked a turning point in Mahler's early musical career as he performed Les Adieux during his graduation recital in college.

The second movement is a dance, a ländler, but it has been distorted to the point that it no longer resembles a dance. It is reminiscent of the second movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony in the distortion of a traditional dance into a danse macabre - a 'dance of death'.

The third movement, in the form of a Rondo, displays the final maturing of Mahler's skills in using counterpoint. It opens with a dissonant theme in the trumpet which is treated in the form of a double fugue. The addition of Burleske (a parody with imitations) to the title of the movement refers to the mixture of dissonance with the Baroque counterpoint with which we are familiar from Bach. The autograph score is marked 'to my brothers in Apollo' and the movement is no doubt intended as a sarcastic and withering response to the critics of his music at the time.

The final movement, marked 'very slowly and held back' (zurückhaltend, literally meaning reservedly), opens for strings only. There is a great similarity in the opening theme to the hymn Abide With Me but most importantly it is a direct quote from the Rondo-Burleske's middle section, where it was mocked and derided: here it becomes an elegy. After several impassioned climaxes the movement increasingly disassembles and the coda ends quietly, albeit affirmatively. On the closing pages, Mahler quotes in the first violins from his own Kindertotenlieder: The day is fine on yonder heights; in other words the ultimate destination is somewhere beyond life.

Because Mahler died not long after the completion of the Ninth Symphony - and did not live to witness its première - this ending is sometimes interpreted as being a self-conscious farewell to the world. However, as Mahler was already working on his Tenth Symphony before his Ninth was completed, this is rather unlikely.

So with this symphony Mahler seems to question and subvert the very forms and traditions that he had shown he had completely mastered in his other symphonies. By turns the Ninth Symphony is lyrical and brutal, mixing music that is superficially mundane with some that is ethereal and exalted. To be sure Eschenbach's account was languorous and, as always, the huge outer movements (here as 'huge' - i.e. long - as I have ever heard them, I think) provided the biggest challenges. The first movement was rather episodic with its succession of juddering crises; Eschenbach just about managed not to lose momentum in the post-climax - or possibly post-coital - sections, where the music seems to be piecing itself back together.

In the last movement, impassioned outpourings from the strings argue with a more reflective second melody and these lusher passages are underpinned by the double-basses. The violins slowly wind down and the final pages fragment; under Eschenbach the texture thinned and the music almost stuttered to a halt as Mahler seems wearily to give up on life at times. At last, the strings whisper the final transcendent phrase … and then nothing happened. Eschenbach kept his arms raised and the members of the excellent LPO held their instruments in place. I suddenly realised I had forgotten to breathe and even for once - and only this once - the coughers were silent! Then, quite deliberately, Eschenbach lowered his hands; the musicians put down their instruments and soon joined in the ovation for their conductor. A very memorable Mahler Nine, though not the best I have heard.

Jim Pritchard

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