Barenboim Offers No Easy Answers – or Easy Questions in Mahler’s Ninth

Mahler: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Konzerthaus, Vienna, 15.11.2015 (MB)


Symphony no.9

It was almost too much, given the state of the world; however, it had to be. Mahler saw – and heard – it all; so, I think, did we. First was a concise, intelligent, beautifully delivered speech, already scheduled, by the President of Austria, Heinz Fischer. It is tempting to draw comparisons with other political leaders, especially those one cannot imagine speaking convincingly on the good done by the United Nations, whose seventieth anniversary is being celebrated, Gustav Mahler, and Daniel Barenboim, whose birthday it turned out to be. I shall leave you to draw them, should you wish. Barenboim was presented with a bouquet and hailed as a great friend of Austria; most importantly, we were reminded of his extraordinary work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, though, spoke more eloquently than any words; indeed, I suspect that it spoke or sang more eloquently than any of the composer’s symphonies with words might have done. The Second would have been wrong, just wrong, at the moment; so, I suspect, would the Third. The Fourth might have seemed too naïve; not that it is, but that is another story. The Eighth: well, another time. Nor can I imagine having been able to bear the nihilism of the Sixth; the Ninth certainly has nihilism, but it is not, or not entirely, how it ends. As for Kindertotenlieder

It began in tones perhaps unusually sombre, even for this first movement. It was almost ponderous, by which I mean no adverse criticism. Second violins tried to console; the firsts tried again, harder. Agitation soon won out, and so it went on. There were to be no easy answers – or easy questions. Attempts to have dances assert themselves were hopeless. Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic had intimate, chamber passages – in which Mahler shows himself the truest heir to Wagner – terrified as much as climaxes. And what menace in the harps, from the very opening: they chilled to the bone. So, in a different way, did the heartbreaking tenderness of a Viennese horn. There was nothing appliqué, as there can be in lesser Mahler performances, which some, alas, take for the works themselves; Barenboim clearly meant it. Nor was there anything faked about the horror of what could only today be heard as militarism; this was the horror at inhumanity of Mahler, the humanist. It should be ours too. Hollowed out, exhausted, the sound of muted trombones and tuba sounded bitterer than ever, leading once again to a crucial, spotlit intervention from the harp and disquiet from lower strings that recalled the Seventh Symphony and its oars. Ghosts from a supposedly better past (Mahler’s, Vienna’s, humanity’s?) tried to intervene, but only made matters worse; we seemed to be heading the way of the Sixth after all. Violin solos’ sickly sweetness was only partly offset by the deathly purity of the flute. The conclusion: exhaustion, resignation, maybe even a flicker of hope, albeit not of a Beethovenian variety.

Truculent, yet initially good-natured, rustic defiance was the hallmark of the second movement, or rather of its opening. Haydn’s music might no longer be a possible aspiration, but we have to do something in his stead. It was stylised, of course, yet with roots in something akin to a soil. The threat of the abyss was never far away: immanent or remembered? Unclear, save for when it became clear. There was to Barenboim’s reading, quite rightly, not the tiniest glimpse of sentimentality. The whirlwind concatenation of dances had nowhere to go, yet could not stop; this was avowedly not Der Rosenkavalier. Was that cheekiness in the piccolo sign-off? Perhaps that seemed the only option left, except that this was clearly not the end.

The Rondo-Burleske was marked by a ferocity of counterpoint that sounded as if it might aim to obliterate harmony – in every sense – yet could not, must not. Brass hemiolas signalled an unexpected, angry reference to Brahms (the Progressive, as Mahler may never have seen, but Schoenberg would). Charm signalled a typically Viennese change of tack, yet whether urban or more imaginatively rural, it could not work either, the need to try notwithstanding. This was nihilism all right: the Mahler whom Berg lauded as saying ‘no’. The Classical battle between major and minor sounded both as the point and beside it. There was, moreover, no doubt that this was Barenboim’s performance; if, say, the seconds threatened to become too loud, he signalled in no uncertain terms and they responded. Had the harps now changed their role? Time and time again, they acted as heralds for vistas that could not yet be glimpsed. Hearts almost stopped, and almost stopped again. I shall not attempt to describe the brutality of the close; it simply was.

Many conductors take the finale attacca; there is much to be said for that. Here, however, there was a pause for reflection. The opening violin line truly felt as though it might lead anywhere: to Parsifal, to Schoenberg’s op.16 … Yet it had to lead to hymnal warmth. These were, after all, the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. What we heard was necessary, yet it could not erase what had preceded it. Bassoons (and contrabassoon) called even that degree of consolation into question, and there was vehemence in the strings’ re-assertion of that apparent consolation. Barenboim visibly sought greater vibrato – and, thank goodness, we heard it; for we needed it. There was, indeed, it seemed, mutual incitement between conductor and orchestra. At times, Barenboim’s approach seemed somewhat Brucknerian. (He is far more selective with Mahler than with Bruckner.) And yet, Mahler’s chamber music seemed, on the other side, to herald Webernesque disintegration. (Admittedly, late Bruckner can too, but not quite in the same way.) Harmony, tonal harmony at that, was not to be vanquished yet, however. Proud and defiant, if this were not quite tonality’s last word, then it certainly felt as if it were. However much a bass line might attempt to delay resolution, there came a point at which we felt it could not succeed; there came another point at which we knew it could not. Again, this may not have been the last hurrah for the integrative forces of a symphonic finale, but it felt like it. Questions remained, but some, at least, of the right ones had been asked.


Mark Berry

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