Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.9/Barenboim]

Symphony No.9

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 17 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: Kevin RogersThe final two concerts of Staatskapelle Berlin’s Mahler cycle featured works the composer never had a chance to hear performed – this performance of the Ninth Symphony was preceded the evening before by the opening Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony and “Das Lied von der Erde”.

Although it was the orchestra’s tenth concert in twelve days, the musicians seemed as fresh and engaged as ever. Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf had been at the helm every single time, excelling not only in his position as Leader but also in his many solos. His son Christian, first trumpet, turned in his best performance of the series with heart-stopping playing in the third movement, while flute, piccolo, horn and viola solos elsewhere were also noteworthy.

Daniel Barenboim, who had opened the cycle, also concluded it. However, whereas he had given a driven performance of the First Symphony, it was curious that he underplayed the one instance in his music where Mahler explicitly asks for violence. Only in the opening movement of the Ninth did the composer ever write “Mit Wut” (with rage), but neither anger nor any kind of unusually intense emotion emanated at that point in the development. Conversely, the beginning lacked any sense of mystery, being much too present and direct.

The first movement is a marvel of compositional technique, of contrapuntal and architectural mastery. It requires that a conductor manifest both structural insight and the ability to express the many different moods and characters of the music. One was left feeling that there were levels Barenboim had not reached, here and in the subsequent movements. As in the Seventh, he imposed arbitrary tempo changes that hampered structural clarity. Yet he drew very appropriate, well-characterized playing from the orchestra in the second-movement Ländler, and the ‘Rondo-Burlesque’ moved steadily forward without the sectionalizing sometimes encountered.

The strings played gloriously in the finale, with all the deep, rich, heartfelt sound one could wish for. Yet there was something amiss, and again it had to do with character. Mahler marks the movement’s main tempo Molto adagio. Since there is no metronome marking given one may quibble over pacing, but it should feel slow and broad. In his quest to sustain long lines, Barenboim didn’t quite let the music settle or reach a point of peace for the main theme, not even in the very beginning. Only in the coda did he finally allow the momentum to dissipate, the music to disintegrate as Mahler had conceived it.

There have been performances of the Ninth at Carnegie Hall under Karajan and Abbado where they worked absolute magic with this final movement, taking one’s breath away and, after prolonged silences, triggering ovations which persisted even after the orchestra had left, each conductor recalled to an empty stage.

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