Vienna Philharmonic/Franz Welser-Möst at Carnegie Hall – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9 in D

Vienna Philharmonic
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 3 March, 2024
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

For this, the final concert in their three-day stopover at Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic offered an adieu, Mahler’s Ninth, his last completed Symphony, the work commonly viewed as his conscious farewell to life. Leonard Bernstein called it ‘the ultimate farewell’ and speculated that the work foretold not only Mahler’s imminent death, but ‘the death of tonality’ and ‘the death of society’.

This was a grand performance – impassioned in its immediacy, meticulous in its attention to detail – one that conveyed all the power of the piece with complete conviction. The long opening movement, taken at a somewhat brisk pace but without being rushed, unfolded with a natural flowing quality and a feeling of tender, hushed intensity. Expertly balancing power and emotion, Welser-Möst shaped the long lyrical lines toward lofty climaxes that resolved with a marvelous sense of the serene. The playing throughout was full-bodied, radiant and refined, with many memorable moments: the delicate phrases of the strings at the opening, the funeral procession thumping of the timpani, the graceful flute solo, and the ethereal harps at the close – to name only a few.

The central movements were crisp and incisive, aptly conveying liveliness and wit with a winning sense of lightness. Welser-Möst took a decidedly unblended approach to the music. Diving headlong into the Ländler, he carved out precise, characterful textures in the woodwinds and strings as he skillfully navigated a fine line between symphony and satire, the music soon evolved into a remorseless whole-tone waltz and then into something more biting and sarcastic that bore little resemblance to a dance, and finally into a whispery ending with a bright toot from the piccolo. The ensuing ‘Rondo-Burleske’ was abrasive and marked with an edgy menace miles away from the passionate intensity of the opening Andante comodo.

The concluding Adagio arrived with dignity and simplicity. The great theme, perfectly paced, emerged song-like from the strings, its valedictory grandeur firmly in evidence as Welser-Möst built wave upon wave to a radiant climax, bringing all the emotional power one could want. Mahler’s moving and protracted farewell was rendered with extraordinary sensitivity as the strings slowly retreated into devastating silence.

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