Boston Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 17 March, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
The unfortunate, yet not completely unexpected departure of James Levine as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, effective this September, has also left his remaining concerts this season to be filled by guest conductors. For Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, the BSO engaged Latvian-born Andris Nelsons, Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
The Ninth is often referred to as a very personal leave-taking from the world, art, and life (save Mahler planned if left unfinished the now-performable Tenth). In the Ninth’s four movements, Mahler seems to view existence from the perspective of old age (even though he was not yet 50 when he wrote the work). As his health rapidly deteriorated, his quest to find answers to the metaphysical questions that plagued him became more desperate. And in his last few years, Mahler seemed resigned to his being unable to find such answers. Instead, he sought an inner peace that would temper thoughts of the arduous struggles and bitter suffering that he endured both as public artist and private man. A two-note motto (a falling second) seems to haunt the entire work, whether imbedded in themes or in isolated gestures.
Nelsons’s overall approach emphasized the struggles and conflicts presented primarily in the first three movements by heightening the tension through hyped-up energy. He began the first movement by clearly delineating the two principal rhythmic mottos that may represent contrasting heart-beats, the first allegedly replicating Mahler’s cardiac arrhythmia and the second a regular, steady pulse. Nelsons’s slight hesitation at the beginning of the first theme enhanced its soothing quality, and heightened its contrast with the angular and aggressive second theme, which he played with a vigorous, almost brutal force. As the music became more intense, Nelsons urged the tempo forward with such energy that it virtually raced to the close of the exposition. During the development, Nelsons kept increasing the main tempo (an andante) so impulsively that only the huge sonic plunge to the depths forced him to draw back from the edge of collapse. Balances favored the brass-players, apparently left to their own devices to lay bare the grotesque sounds that provoke what seems like a struggle between life-sustaining and life-destroying forces and to pronounce motivic material as if blurted out from the nowhere. Shadowy string figures murmured almost inaudibly during transitional passages that lead to a new theme based upon a tune from Johann Strauss II’s Waltz, Freut des Lebens (Enjoy Life). When the development reached its terrifying climax, the brass suddenly entered with a more powerful statement of the arrhythmic motto, which Mahler reinforces by an enormous tam-tam stroke like a pronouncement of doom. But the tam-tam was virtually inaudible.
In the second movement, Mahler contrasts two dance themes: a rather bumptious Ländler, representing innocent if naïve country-life and a vigorous waltz symbolizing a more sophisticated if rather obnoxious cosmopolitanism. Nelsons played up this duality by driving the waltz music to a frenzy, heightening its antagonism to the Ländler that keeps inadvertently getting in its way. A third theme, another Ländler that begins with the ‘farewell’ motif, similarly seemed caught up in the hard-driving tempos set by Nelsons. What might have seemed unduly hurried then became wildly unrestrained during the Rondo-Burleske, the demonic fury coming through as if by sheer force of will. But the quieter middle section seemed affected by the power, the serene mood undermined by excessive urgency. For the faster gradations of tempo with which this wild movement ends, Nelsons made an admirable attempt to create ferocity, and it was certainly trotzig (defiant).
The finale was the most successful. This fervent prayer for peace sheds the feverish impulse of the earlier movements for unhurried but extremely passionate expression. The BSO string-players played their hearts out. Later, with references to a figure from ‘Der Abschied’ (The Farewell), the vast final setting of Mahler’s previous symphony, “Das Lied von der Erde”, the gradual build-up to the shattering climax was overwhelming. Nelsons tried valiantly to force us to recognize that the thrusting C-flats played by strings at the highpoint of this passage are but an elongated version of the arrhythmic motto with which the symphony began. Then in a blaze of glory, reinforced by strongly accented strings, the brass enters with the main theme played as if to acknowledge receiving the gift of redemption. The final page of the score, for strings only and treated extremely slowly in hushed sustained tones was beautifully handled, generating an aura of eternal peace. Nelsons wisely let the final chord die out at length and waited for nearly a full minute before he slowly let his hands fall. Nelsons’s view of this remarkable work is likely to mature as he relates more to its world-weary aspects than to its painful recollections of past battles viewed here from a safe distance.