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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Comparative Listening: Mahler's Symphony No. 9

Gustav Mahler's final complete symphony is a difficult, extremely personal work. Structured around an arrhythmic figure in the harp and cello (Leonard Bernstein said it represents the the composer's own failing heart), this is a massive, anguished symphony that even intimidates some Mahler aficionados.

So it was not without trepadation that I decided to make the Ninth the focus of an exercise in comparitive listening. I would listen to five of the recordings I own, in search of some understanding of what makes these recordings different and what compels the record buyer to own different versions of the same piece. This is a new feature on the site, and I hope you like it.

The contenders:

First movement: Andante comodo
The first movement of this symphony is a massive statement that starts quietly. A soft thump of harp, flute, and strings. An echoing, muted trumpet. The mood is quiet and contemplative. Slowly it builds, to a jarring, dissonant climax: the sound of a heart breaking. The climactic chords clash with the slow theme, and the whole dies away to silence.

Most conductors average about 29 minutes in this movement, a slow ramp-up of the 'heartbeat' theme followed by interjections of brass and percussion. The difference comes in how they choose to phrase the opening figure, which usually sets the pace for the whole movement.

Leonard Bernstein opts for the poetic approach. Pierre Boulez makes the minor-key brass fanfare at 11 minutes in a terrifying, forceful moment. Riccardo Chailly is slow and reflective, more restrained. Giuseppe Sinopoli, the surgeon turned conductor, is clinical and precise. However, his odd tempo choices and lack of rubato comes across as emotionless. Rafael Kubelik phrases the music with eloquence and sentimentality without tearing at itself.

Second movement: Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers.
The second movement of the Ninth is "in the form of a Ländler", the Austrian peasant dance that pops up in the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner. Mahler has added dissonant passages and squeaking clarinet trills, distorting the dance to an almost unrecognizable shape. He then interrupts himself with a boisterous trio that runs out of energy--replaced by the faltering "heartbeat" motive.

Chailly, Bernstein and Kubelik seem most at-home in this music, with Bernstein taking the most rubato in the movement. Kubelik has excellent command of Mahler's typical rhythm, as he does throughout his underrated cycle. Boulez and Sinopoli don't quite make the orchestra dance.

Third movement: Rondo-burleske
Mahler pulls out all the stops in this manic movement, reminiscent of the last movement of his Seventh. A rondo is simply a "round", a short theme repeated and usually subjected to variation. Here it is twisted into a "burlesque" form--not a stripper's dance but a grotesque, comic caper, a grimace. This is the "blowout" movement of the symphony, filled with the violence and manic emotion of the death-struggle. Or is it just the composer laughing at the cosmic joke that is life?

Leonard Bernstein is well ahead of his peers here, stepping on the accelerator in a go-for-the-throat performance that still manages to make the one slow variation sound elegaic. Pierre Boulez gives this move a clock-like precision and power. He has the best brass section.

Fourth movement: Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend. (Very slowly, and cautious)

The composer breaks convention with this final Adagio, placing the slow movement at the end. Impassioned outpourings in the strings argue with a reflective second melody played by the low winds and basses. This is followed by a very slow fugue that quotes several of the earlier Mahler symphonies and the Kindertotenlieder. The last bars fade to a reflective silence. Interestingly, the final notes are resolved by the opening of the first movement.

Bernstein and Chailly average out at 29:30 each. Theirs are diametrically opposed approaches to this music: one is impassioned, and the other contemplates infinity. Sinopoli in the middle of the pack at 25 minutes. Boulez and Kubelik are even faster: their interpretations are both eight minutes shorter at about 21:25 and 21:46 (respectively) compared to the other three conductors. All five recordings end with the gorgeous pianissimo fade-out that seems to transcend this mortal plane.

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