Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen in New York – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 18 November, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe final concert of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival consisted of Mahler’s last finished symphony, a work often termed the composer’s “farewell”, written barely two years before his death, and prominently featuring the melodic motif of falling seconds, reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Les adieux’ Piano Sonata. However, Mahler’s comments on the Ninth in a letter he wrote to the conductor Oskar Fried shed quite a different light: “At present I really couldn’t care less whether my things are performed or not. For my own entertainment I compose now and again a symphony (or something like the amusing work I am involved in writing at this moment); but I understand very well that the world couldn’t care less about my amusements.”

The last photograph of Gustav MahlerFrom Esa-Pekka Salonen the Ninth turned out to be neither amusement nor farewell, but an extremely well-played symphony without much in the way of a message or deeper meaning. While the beginning of the first movement can almost be considered a continuation of the last sounds of ‘Der Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde, here it was all surface, too energetic, too loud, and devoid of any mystery. The lack of soft dynamics continued to be a problem throughout; but, more than that, it was the lack of the atmosphere and color they evoke. Not until the very end of the work did Salonen finally step away from beating into the orchestra and start to gently shape those final bars to marvelous effect. This was in stark contrast to the beginning of the movement, which was played much too loudly. As impressive as the Philharmonia Orchestra’s string sound is, as the finale progressed Salonen pushed it beyond Mahler’s “molto espressivo”, beyond expansive and beautiful. No transfigured farewell here, more of a “raging against the dying of the light”.

Salonen’s energetic approach fared best in the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ third movement, although even here one wished for more dynamic and expressive contrast. The slow middle section suffered most, as the conductor even accompanied Alistair Mackie’s beautiful trumpet solo with his emphatic beats, robbing the passage of all repose. In the second movement similarly one missed any sense of irony, of the send-up of Austrian society, or of a demented waltz.

However, as artistically unsatisfying the performance was, it was stunningly well played by the Philharmonia. Warm, rich strings, impressive woodwinds – especially the principal flute and English Horn – and a first horn, Katy Woolley, who was congratulated personally by Salonen during the curtain calls. Although the brass section was allowed to overpower the rest of the orchestra at times, it was always well blended and never turned harsh.

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