Balance and Coherence Lacking in Mahler’s Ninth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Mahler: Nicholas Angelich (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra  / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London. 28.3.2014 (GD)

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major


Mahler’s Ninth Symphony presents the conductor with many interpretive complexities. Among these complexities/problems is the question of structural balance and overall coherence. The huge first movement is surely Mahler’s finest symphonic achievement, but its success in performance depends crucially on the conductor’s ability to articulate and  gauge the opening pulse on which the whole movement is formed. The pulse is structured around falling seconds in the violins – with a motivic link taken from Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata – which initiates a dialectic between D major and D minor. Much of this was lost tonight with Nézet-Séguin‘s very slow, almost dragging, opening tempo, with the result that the tempo primo was almost never definitely established, thus robbing the movement of its coherence, its sense of ineluctable evolution.  These problems were compounded in the first of a succession of climaxes of staggering orchestral power where the conductor found it necessary to speed up, and in the process lose all sense of  the granitic and integrated power of the music, so completely realised in the various recorded performances of Mahler students Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. The great D minor climax, with fff trombone and timpani pounding out the opening figure, was delivered impressively with great force, but I had the sense here that this was imposed from without, rather than emerging or evolving from the the movements inner structural dialectic. The following ghostly cortège, also based on the opening motive, didn’t have much effect, sounding more like a rehearsal rub-through, but the following cadenza dialogue between flute and horn, towards the coda, was nicely balanced and well played. Throughout Nézet-Séguin deployed the standard non-antiphonal violin seating arrangement, and in the process much  vital counterpoint was obscured or made less effective. We know that Mahler always deployed antiphonal violins as a performative imperative. I note that the LPO’s principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski insists on antiphonal violins. So iit would be interesting to hear him in the Mahler 9, if he has performed it, or intends to perform it?

One of the other performative problems mentioned earlier is how to balance the three remaining movements (especially the two middle movements) with the breadth and magnitude of the first movement? There is sometimes a sense that these two movements, and even the finale, do not quite live up to the extraordinary range of the opening movement.  Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Hans Rosbaud and Pierre Boulez have all, in their different ways,

demonstrated this can be overcome if the two middle movements are given their due weight and tonal/motivic contrast. Mahler makes it quite clear (in the score headings, and in the contour and tonal/harmonic intricacies of the score)  what he wants. In the second movement he wants a rather heavy sounding ländler (dancing) soundscape. And in the third movement Rondo Buleske he wants a very forceful, even defiant, angry, insolent tone.

The ‘heavy’, even ‘clumsy’ inflections Mahler asks for in the second movement were quite well intoned but did not register the full irony of the music, as heard with the conductors mentioned above.  And in the mock military band intonations in the second waltz theme some of the irony was heard, but not enough. Moreover there were moments of rough ensemble particularly in the woodwind and horns.  The ‘defiant’ forceful tone of the Rondo Burleske lacked the cut and thrust required, although Nézet-Séguin did obtain some quite accurate playing in the mock contrapuntal sequences. But the D major contrasts, just before the coda, where Mahler introduces the main theme of the concluding Adagio finale sounded rather bland and contrived, deflecting from any kind of integrated structural coherence.

There were some fine qualities in the great concluding Adagio. Nézet-Séguin chose a fairly slow tempo which he maintained; never any sign of dragging. The first D flat major climax was well timed, as was the final climax, with its heroic D major variant in the horns of the opening theme. Here there were occasional  problems of intonation, especially in the horn section. There were also some balance problems in the build up to the final climax; the woodwind ascending figures being virtually inaudible. But this might have sounded clearer in a less cavernous, more open acoustic, than that offered by the Festival Hall. Nézet-Séguin was convincing in the way he delineated the C sharp minor re-working of the opening theme in the basses,  effectively registering the ghostly emanations in the high strings. The concluding Adagissimo leading to the long process of gradual fragmentation was impressive, with a suitably sustained ppp, pppp, especially in the strings. Throughout the whole performance, but mostly in the final Adagio, he deployed some heavy vibrato, especially in the strings.  It is interesting to note that in Mahler’s day vibrato was more associated with light café music and avoided in the concert hall. Bruno Walter, in his wonderful 1938 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, just before the Anschluss, totally avoids it, as do Boulez, Norrington,  and Klemperer.  It might be finally a matter of taste. But excluding, or minimizing vibrato surely sounds  less sentimental, more stoically resolute, as Mahler surely intended.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s economically composed First Piano Concerto. The programming logic could here be seen as the coupling of an early and late work by two Jewish composers, although I can’t imagine a composer more unlike Mahler than Mendelssohn! Angelich gave a strong, sometimes clangorous performance. His energy was evident from the very beginning which, like Mozart’s great E flat Piano Concerto K 271,  brings in the soloist immediately with no orchestral introduction,  All the juxtapositions and shifts between soloist and orchestra were well managed, especially in the first movement and the Presto coda. The more introspective Andante, with its luminous tonal contrasts, and veiled memories of the Mendelssohn’s own Songs Without Words, came off best tonight, with Angelich showing a more lyrical and subtle side to his playing. The finale, initiated by minor-key fanfares from horns and trumpets, was impressively dispatched. The contrast between the minor key opening, and the rest of the spirited major-key finale, were well contrasted, with a touch of virtuoso brilliance in the swift and brief coda from both soloist and conductor/ orchestra.

Geoff Diggines.  

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