Last Works – LSO/MTT (17 November)

Symphony No.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The LSO’s “Last Works” series came full-circle with another look at Mahler’s last completed symphony, music that has long been significant for Michael Tilson Thomas. Previous London performances from him have been memorable; this one culminated in a quite extraordinary closing ’Adagio’, stretched to (in my experience) an unprecedented 30 minutes. Not that this statistic begins to suggest the intensity, or the control, with which MTT unfolded the opening hymnal, introduced the other-worldly contrast with such a fine ear for distance, then offset the two towards the fire of the climax, which was transcendental, before the fragmenting and evaporating final minutes brushed the air. When the washed-out MTT turned to acknowledge the audience, he looked how I felt.

The LSO was in jaw-dropping form – wonderful corporate and solo virtuosity – and a special mention for the eloquent ’string trio’ of Markus Wolf, Paul Silverthorne and Moray Welsh – and the full strings, of which Mahler (and MTT) makes such demands, were unflinching. (For the record, this was the orchestra’s fifth Mahler 9 with MTT in a fortnight, three in Germany.)

Yet there was a niggling doubt that MTT had slightly miscalculated the finality of the music: nothing could follow the compelling ’Adagio’ it seemed, even though it did (the ’Adagio’ and overall short-score of the Tenth). From the off this performance suggested ’last rites’. MTT also took 30 minutes for the opening ’Andante comodo’ (not the slowest – Giulini and Maazel add a couple of minutes) and made it seem too complete. While the full emotional range was inexorably charted, MTT’s ’in time’ traversal proved a too-final expression of sweet remembrance with surges of bitterness. Allowing that the trumpets and trombones were occasionally too loud, MTT’s lucid dissection of Mahler’s scoring was fastidious; the timpani’s hammering of the omnipresent ’heartbeats’ was suitably cathartic; and I had not previously registered the coda’s allusions to the ’Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde (nominally No.9 but for Mahler’s superstitions).

No more seemed needed. Of course, the Ländler piped up, perky then heavily underlined – extremes in a few seconds. Not a bar seemed the same in terms of inflection and weight of attack. Maybe in terms of orchestral requirements MTT over-stylised this Austrian dance as it prisms in perspective and emotional shifts; yet I have not it heard it made more interesting in terms of sonority. Curiously the either witty or ironic closing piccolo flourish was deadpan, something more suited to the following ’Burleske’. Here MTT found playfulness that seemed out of place, and a couple of choppy tempo changes undermined the movement’s mechanics. The ’trio’ though could not have been more radiant with vistas-beyond opened up wonderfully with a heartfelt broadening of pace. MTT made a significant point of interceding the funereal tread of the first movement before the wild coda, which here didn’t deteriorate to a ’first past the post’ scramble. I’m not easily going to forget the bells-up horns spitting out their defiant salute – ’Sehr trotzig’ indeed as Mahler directs.

MTT’s Mahler 9 is a deeply considered and long-lived interpretation. Doubts there may have been, but this often-overwhelming and illuminating performance, and the remarkable ’Adagio’, counts as special.

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