Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 3 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, written sub specie mortis, is an artist’s response to imminent death, encapsulating anguish, anger and acceptance in that order. This performance had the potential to be particularly poignant given it took place less than 24 hours after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, the combination of conductor and work turned out to be the musical equivalent of a major piece of miscasting (like the wrong actor playing King Lear). Even the finest musicians cannot tackle all music with equal success, although self-knowledge normally leads most performers to focus on works for which they have a clear affinity: that spiritual connection between interpreter and music was seldom in evidence, here. Seldom have I been less moved by this symphony.
There were magnificent things along the way, not least a Rondo Burlesque in which all the notes could actually be heard, and the final pages of the concluding Adagio played with breathtaking control. The problems included, firstly, dynamics; especially in the first movement where the orchestral web frequently consists of instruments playing simultaneously at quite different dynamic levels, often at the upper and lower extremes of their registers. Barenboim failed to clarify this. Then tempo relationships have a very particular importance in this work, whether it is between the three different Ländler of the second movement or during the gigantic first movement. For much of the time Barenboim didn’t establish a steady pulse; the consequence being that tension frequently sagged, especially as the music hauled itself out of the ‘slough of despond’ in the backwashes of the first movement’s massive climaxes. Finally, rhythm: much of the music’s inherent angst derives from Mahler’s persistent combination of 2 beats against 3, which is used to ratchet up tension. If this anxiety fails to register fully, either because the basic dynamic level is too loud or because the music’s pulse is too uncertain, the real climaxes fail to achieve their full seismic impact and a whole dimension is lost. So it was here.
For an orchestra of this calibre there seemed to be more than a fair share of fluffs, the horn in the opening paragraph, the contrabassoon in the finale, and there was also the issue of the orchestral sound itself. Wisely, given the nature of Mahler’s writing, Barenboim divided the violins left and right and the string sound in the finale was indeed marvellous. However, the sheer amplitude of the CSO’s sound made for uncomfortable listening in the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic.
“Face to face with nothing”, Mahler wrote to Bruno Walter, “I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved … now, at the end of my life I have to begin to learn to walk and stand”. Confronted with the imminence of death, that sense of a whole lifetime relived and compacted into 90 minutes, of the work’s trajectory from anguish through abject terror, sarcasm and anger to ultimate acceptance of the inevitable, which marks out all the greatest performances of this music, was sadly lacking here.
- Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony in a Bartók programme, RFH 4 April at 7.30
- South Bank Centre