Some works of music have a density of meaning and event compressed within their pages that, as many times as one returns to them, they offer up something new to hear. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony falls unquestionably among them.
Written in Mahler’s final years with an awareness of death’s approach, the piece is commonly grouped with his incomplete Tenth Symphony and “Das Lied von der Erde” as music of a prolonged farewell, one filled by turns with moments of recollection, bitterness, yearning, and a kind of wise acceptance that registers all the more deeply for being so hard-won. True there is no symphony by Mahler that does not touch on ultimate subjects. Yet the outer movements of the Ninth do so with a piercing clarity of vision. As Alban Berg wrote of this music, the air is thin. Mahler has taken us above the mountains.
On Friday night, for the concluding performance of their 35th season, Benjamin Zander and the members of the Boston Philharmonic returned to Symphony Hall and returned once more to the Ninth. In the massive first movement they rendered with abundant care the work’s moments of disarming tenderness, or what Berg again described as “the expression of an incredible love for this earth.” This emphasis in turn played up the contrast with the movement’s other remarkable passages of coldness and dissociation. Here the music stares bleakly into the abyss.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, Benjamin Zander, conductor
It’s always tempting to hear in the ferocious waltzes and the claustrophobic counterpoint of the Ninth’s middle movements a portrait of Vienna’s own seething internal contradictions. It was a city that installed Mahler at its musical pinnacle and then tossed him out. The second movement in particular shows us a kind of splendor past its shelf life, elegance curdled into mania. This is the Vienna not just of Karl Kraus but of Karl Lueger.
Friday’s performance went a long way toward bringing out the darkness and sting in this movement, even if one wished at times for playing from the brasses of more definition and bite. The Rondo-Burleske made its points persuasively, with Zander keeping the tempo in check until the final pages, at which point he hit the gas and drove home the music’s fury.
For me the real gift of Friday’s performance was the closing Adagio, in which the Boston Philharmonic strings played with unstinting conviction, digging in deeply and producing a sea of molten tone. This orchestra has professionals, students, and amateurs within its ranks, and if you told me that many were there to play precisely this music, I would believe you.
Mahler’s final completed symphony does not end with the affirmative grandeur of, say, a certain other Ninth. Instead Mahler seems to pull the strands of music apart one by one until a vast silence begins to overtake the sound. Even some unfortunate rustling in the hall on Friday could not dispel the music’s effect. The composer here gives us “a glimmer,” as Bernstein once put it, “of what peace must be like.”