Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chronicle of a death re-told

The composer's grave outside Vienna.

It's been awhile since I've listened to Mahler's Ninth - the last time, in fact, was a performance by James Levine and the BSO that I felt slid from the sublime to the ridiculous. The trouble with the BSO version was that Levine's hyper-refined aesthetic doesn't really map to Mahler's, and so the Ninth, famously the composer's last completed symphony, and famously obsessed with the spectre of death, became in Levine's hands so lingeringly attenuated that it began to sound self-pitying.

But of course Mahler, even dying Mahler, is anything but self-pitying. The Ninth may not even be quite sorrowful, if you ask me. I'm not even sure it's only about death - although it's almost certainly about defeat. It's also definitely about struggle, and about something in that struggle going mad, and then something else surviving that struggle before slowly dying away in acceptance of its failure. If it does "die away," that is; the final, softly persistent theme does end, it's true, but only because the work itself must end; it's somehow more resigned than tragic. But a romantic idea has become attached to the Ninth that we're not merely attending an artistic statement but also a metaphoric funeral for the composer (who requested that he be buried in silence), and maybe a funeral for the symphonic form itself. For no one has really taken up Mahler's mantle, or the challenge of his expansion of the symphony into titanic new forms that, though thrilling, never actually led to the triumphant synthesis he was after.

So as you may be able to guess, the Ninth is in a way about Mahler going meta, and turning his post-Romantic temperament onto the very means of Romantic music itself. This makes him an ideal subject for Benjamin Zander, who is at his best in colossal musical rhetoric, and sure enough, his interpretation of the Ninth last weekend with Boston Philharmonic at Sanders Theatre did not disappoint. One wishes that the Philharmonic could command Symphony Hall for these huge endeavours - over and over again, Zander conducts great reckonings in small rooms, it seems, and as usual, the Ninth felt extremely loud and incredibly close at Sanders. And the demands of this challenging work pushed the Philharmonic's technical resources to their limit, and maybe (here and there) a bit beyond, at least in the winds (though not the horns). Also, Zander has separated his first and second violins, for reasons which remained unclear at least at this concert, and this may have contributed to a few problems of balance.

Then again, a certain lack of balance isn't exactly the wrong idea for the Ninth, and in general Zander's sense of the design of the work held together brilliantly even when the orchestra nearly didn't. Both he and his players were at their best in the complex opening movement, which is where the piece is most openly about drama, always a Zander specialty. The oddly jaunty second movement, a Viennese folk dance (the ländler) that seems to lose its bearings and work itself into a frenzy, also came off with exciting and precise attack. Things got a little rough in the third movement, but in the famous fourth, with its oh-so-slowly-dying fall, the Philharmonic recovered, and achieved a sense of haunting equipoise. The orchestra couldn't quite pull off the one coup the BSO brilliantly managed - which is to have the movement's final notes trail off so imperceptibly into silence that we can't be sure when they have, in fact, actually ended. Zander compensated by holding the following silence for several long beats, as I suppose we were to imagine Mahler's spirit passing. And truth be told, I'm sure many of us were.