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Monday, November 19, 2012

Concert Review: Checking the Baggage

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Mahler's Ninth. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Mat Hennek © Deutsche Grammophon
It's not every day that a familiar conductor can present a well-known and well-loved repertory symphony in such a way that the listener hears it with fresh ears. But that's exactly what happened Sunday at Avery Fisher Hall, when Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler's Ninth Symphony.

No other symphony has the baggage of the Mahler Ninth. It's the composer's last completed work. Mahler did not live to hear it played. And the opening, descending dotted rhythm phrase that forms the motto of the entire 90-minute symphony was associated (by Leonard Bernstein, no less) as representing the composer's own damaged, faltering heart.

That's quite a legacy. However, in performing ths symphony on Sunday night, Mr. Salonen chose to lay sentiment aside. He took a clear, assured approach which offered the audience new inroads into the mysteries of these four strange movements. Throughout, this performance had a clarity of texture in the strings. The Philharmonia horns sounded noble and mournful, but not over-wrought.

The first movement is marked Andante comodo ("comfortably moving forward.") Mr. Salonen established Mahler's troubled, fitful narrative, with the descending, sweet string figure in the low strings answered hesitatingly, and then with increased confidence, by the Philharmonia brass. Though the stops and starts that are a hallmark of this movement were present, the momentum of the piece never faltered. The orchestra flexed its full muscle, delivering the fortissimos in a way that made narrative sense where other conductors tend to bring the noise.

The lilting second movement continues the autumnal feel, with a (deliberately) clumsy, lead-footed ländler. In the wrong hands can resemble the carousing of drunken peasants. This stutter-step rhythm was crisply played by the cellos and winds, with sweet, bell-like tones from the clarinet and reedy accompaniment from the oboe and English Horn. The central trio echoed with its own folksy meter, anchored by bold timpani-strokes and muted brass.

Mr. Salonen opted for power and rhythmic drive in the Rondo-Burleske, never allowing the lurching meter to lapse into grotesquerie. The orchestra charged into the nightmarish movement, anchored by exceptional trumpet playing. The Finnish maestro's baton cut and slashed the air, drawing huge, carefully controlled detonations of sound from the brass players, answered back by the massed strings. It was simply exhilarating.

The finale is an epic Adagio built around a slow, descending theme (itself inspired by the hard-charging material in the previous Rondo. Mr. Salonen started the movement facing only the first violins. He emphasized textual clarity, with the string melodies audible from individual instruments, not just whole sections. Finally, a few instruments sounded one last reprise of the theme. This performance was not a "farewell to life", but a meditation on the idea of parting, noble, sad and finally, silent.

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