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The Boston Phoenix Symphony of the Century

Late-night thoughts while listening to Mahler Ninths

By Jeffrey Gantz

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Gustav Mahler completed his Ninth Symphony in 1909, and for the past 90 years it's hovered over this century like a very bad dream, anticipating the horrors of two world wars, the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and the death of God -- not to mention that Mahler knew he was dying as he wrote it. Leonard Bernstein in the fifth of his 1973 Charles Eliot Norton lectures finds answers in the Ninth: "And the most startling answer, the most important one -- because it illuminates our whole century from then to now -- is this: that ours is the century of death, and that Mahler is its musical prophet." Lewis Thomas in his essay "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony" agonizes, "I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the death of humanity." In his Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, Theodor Adorno concludes of the symphony's eternal-farewell last page, "The long gaze is fastened on the condemned."

With its two mammoth slow outer movements (close on 30 minutes each) and its lacerating inner pair, the Mahler Ninth will likely go down as the 20th century's defining piece of music. So it's appropriate that as we approach the millennium, two of this composer's leading advocates should weigh in: Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon) and Simon Rattle with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI, two CDs). These recordings raise troubling questions of their own -- not about the future of the planet, but about the future of classical music.

Summing up a century is hard enough at the end; it's a measure of Mahler's genius that he was able to do it at the beginning. In the process he drove musicologists crazy -- the opening Andante comodo movement is so complex, they can't even agree on whether it's a sonata or a rondo, or where basic elements like the recapitulation and the coda begin. All of its creation arises out of conflict: past/present, love/loneliness, life/death, God/chaos. That Andante is a dialogue/dialectic between a resigned D-major theme that recalls Beethoven's Les adieux piano sonata (it drops from F to E but not to its D "home," fearful that there will be no home, no God) and a chromatic, churning D-minor group that keeps causing the D-major theme to crash. A night out in Mahler's Vienna, the dance movement that follows contrasts a country-bumpkin ländler with a pair of bad-tempered waltzes (the first spoofing a theme from the celebrated waltz of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow; the second danced by the trombones, with oom-pah tubas) and a shy, wallflowerish minuet that's based on the Andante's resigned theme. At one point (bar 167) the ländler tries to push the waltz group off the dance floor but gets shunted aside itself.

The third-movement Rondo-Burleske pits academic counterpoint and trivial pop music (here we get the Merry Widow's "Weiber" chorus) against a wistful, idealistic trumpet melody (now the Merry Widow waltz theme again) that's promptly assaulted by the squeaky, cynical A and E-flat clarinets -- sarcasm prevails. But the trumpet melody reasserts itself in the Adagio finale, where the richly vestmented hymn-like main theme (it recalls "Abide with Me") is haunted by a spooky skeleton of a procession in the bassoons, bereft of finery, of meaning. The last page becomes an Adagissimo, 27 bars that can exceed five minutes in length, with a quotation from the fourth song -- "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" ("Often I Think They've Only Gone Outside") -- of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, where the singer still believes he will find his dead children alive.

Given that Mahler had lost his four-year-old daughter Maria to diphtheria and scarlet fever in 1907 and was himself under a death sentence from his physician (bacteriological endocarditis would lead to his death in 1911), it's not hard to see why musicologist Paul Bekker called this symphony "What Death Tells Me." Yet the Andante, at least, tells another story, flashing back to Mahler's First Symphony (Titan) and its serenade-like original second movement, called Blumine ("Flowers"). It could be coincidence that Blumine ends on the same falling major second with which the Ninth's Andante begins. But it's hardly chance that one of Blumine's central ideas is identical to the passage that crowns the Andante's D-minor theme, leading to the crisis of the exposition and precipitating the development's two cataclysmic collapses, the second of which turns into a funeral cortège.

What's Mahler up to here? Titan and Blumine owe their titles to works by the German Romantic writer Johann Paulus Richter (known to his readers as Jean Paul), whom Mahler read voraciously; and the young composer began his Titan symphony in the midst of a bittersweet love affair with soprano Johanna Richter (the similarity of her name to Jean Paul's can hardly have escaped his notice). Mahler eventually suppressed the Blumine movement (for reasons that may have been emotional as well as musical), but the "Johanna" motif isn't to be denied: it turns up in the First Symphony's last movement and (after Mahler had parodied the main Blumine theme in the Scherzo of the Seventh) seduces him once more here in the Ninth. (That's not the end of the Jean Paul allusions, either: the Johann Strauss waltz "Freut' euch des Lebens" -- "Enjoy Life" -- that Mahler quotes ironically throughout the Andante is based on a song Jean Paul's antihero, Roquairol, sings in the novel Titan.) At one point Mahler wrote across the pages of the Andante's score, "O youth! Vanished! O love! Blown away!" Clearly this movement, and the entire symphony, is about love as well as death.

You'd expect the century's defining musical work to have a rich recording history, and the Mahler Ninth does, from Bruno Walter's 1938 impassioned traversal with the Vienna Philharmonic (and his more stoic reading with the Columbia Symphony in 1960) to the quartet of great performances by Jascha Horenstein, the trio by Otto Klemperer, and the trio by the Berlin Philharmonic (John Barbirolli in 1964, Leonard Bernstein in 1979, Herbert von Karajan in 1982). Boston has seen its own concert milestones: Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic in 1985, a go-for-broke reading that was briefly available on tape; Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1993, with their unbelievably slow, quiet final measures; Gunter Schuller and the New England Conservatory in 1995, with their ear-opening sprint through the Adagio.

The new releases by Boulez and Rattle could scarcely be more different. One looks ahead to the 21st century, the other back to the 19th. One is objective, the other subjective. One is monolithic, the other protean. One gets the symphony onto a single CD; the other requires two (though there's only 89 seconds' difference in their aggregate timings).

Two of Pierre Boulez's live BBC Symphony performances of the Ninth, from 1971 and '72, have been issued on CD, but this is his first official recording, following on his DG releases of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh. Already it's sparked a summer of controversy in the likes of Fanfare, the Gramophone, and CD Classic. Some 40 years ago Boulez gave us a revelatory recording of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps that stripped out the color, focusing attention on the piece's rhythmic skeleton. That's what he does here, scraping away the accretion of interpretive tradition like so many barnacles on the hull of the good ship Symphony No. 9. Call it the 12-tone school of conducting: the bourgeois notion of tonality is deprivileged (as is the bourgeois notion of God). In its place we get the score, the whole score, and nothing but the score.

I wonder whether the Boulez approach is really right for Mahler, who's the Finnegans Wake of classical music, quoting from the Church (the plainsong Dies Irae is a staple), other composers (Schubert, Liszt, Smetana, Wagner), novelists (Jean Paul in particular), philosophers (Nietzsche), and, most of all, himself. Yet if there was ever a composer who tried to put everything down on the page (a conductor can scarcely breathe without asking permission), it's Gustav. The problem here, to my ears, is that Boulez has an agenda that goes beyond the score. Everything's on its best behavior. Instruments that should snarl and wail show up in white gloves: the bass clarinet at bar 121 of the Andante, the French horns at the outset of the ländler (marked "keck" -- "bold" -- but nothing like), the E-flat clarinet at bar 140 of the Rondo-Burleske, the bare hint of string portamento in the Adagio. Even the noted horn passage beginning at bar 238 of the Andante, where Mahler turns the sigh of open instruments into a stopped snicker, makes little impression.

Tempo changes and dynamic markings are also kept to a minimum. The "Etwas frischer" ("somewhat more flowing") at bar 80 of the Andante isn't; same for the "Plötzlich langsamer" ("suddenly slower") at bar 234, and when the horn-flute duet of the cadenza arrives (bar 376), you'd never guess that Mahler's late works (Das Lied von der Erde and Symphony No. 10, as well as here) use the flute to suggest the soul trying to escape the body. As for what happens at bar 107 of the Adagio finale, if this is really "heftig ausbrechend" ("with a violent outburst"), I'll eat my 200-CD Mahler collection and throw in the scores.

Then there's the matter of the violins. Mahler, like almost all conductors of his time, seated the first violins to his left and the seconds to his right; and he wrote for this arrangement in his symphonies: they carry on a stereophonic conversation, sometimes even finishing each other's phrases (see bar 17 in the Andante). Modern orchestra seating dictates that the violins huddle to the conductor's left, for a more brilliant sound -- but no conversation. It used to be you could tell the serious Mahler interpreters by whether they divided the violins (Otto Klemperer, Rafael Kubelik, James Levine, Wyn Morris). Nowadays the idea doesn't even rate a mention in the liner notes. As far as my ears can make out, they're not divided here. DG's acoustic tends to the loud and coarse; and perhaps the Chicago Symphony wasn't the best choice for this work -- its previous efforts were a chilly beautiful recording with Carlo Maria Giulini and a chilly extrovert one with Georg Solti.

The tempos for the outer movements are a puzzle: slow-to-falling-apart in the Andante, fast-verging-on-jaunty in the Adagio (it appears the Adagio doesn't have enough texture to hold Boulez's interest, as a result of which his finale lacks emotional weight). But my real quarrel with this Ninth has to do with what's been called Mahler's "eternal present." Any musical performance has two dimensions: vertical (its dialogue with God, or the transcendent, or merely memory) and horizontal (its movement through time). The great Mahler interpreters create tension out of this dialogue. Otto Klemperer used to bring his Mahler to a standstill while he interrogated the Almighty. Boulez is all horizontal: he moves resolutely forward, without tears, without questions, into whatever follows death. At bar 438 of the Rondo-Burleske, where other conductors hear the world shudder, he merely hears a D/F/A-flat/B-flat chord. It's music without religion. Or even religious doubt.

Boulez's '70s Mahler Ninths (and even more his splendid 1970 version of Gustav's early cantata Das klagende Lied) were clear-eyed but also heartfelt. Since then, as we've moved into an age of cookie-cutter Mahler, he's focused on reminding us that it all begins with the score. These are recordings for sophisticated Mahlerites; if you're erudite enough to appreciate what Boulez is doing, you already have a number of Ninths on your shelf. If Deutsche Grammophon are smart, they'll see his Mahler cycle out to the end. Who knows -- maybe when I'm 90 I'll understand what he's trying to say.

Simon Rattle has now recorded seven of Mahler's 10 symphonies (Nos. 3, 5, and 8 yet to come), for the most part to critical acclaim. Yet his is an elusive body of work, its quality redoubtable but its personality an enigma. England's CD Classic called this live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic his "most satisfying Mahler" -- which sounds good, except that when it comes to the Ninth you want "earth-shattering," not "satisfying." Unlike Boulez, Rattle does divide the violins (Austrian Radio's stereo separation is so discreet I could hardly tell), and he delivers on the big moments: the first crash in the development of the Andante (bar 202), the way the horns finally drop to A in the coda (bar 444), the meaningful pause at bar 368 of the ländler, the brass crisis at bar 122 of the Adagio finale. But there are traces of callowness as well: the exaggerated ritard at the end of the Andante's first D-minor statement (bar 46), the unmarked ritard halting the dizzy stretto that ends the Rondo-Burleske. Not to mention the way the Blumine motif gets the cold shoulder on its arrival (bar 92), almost as if Mahler were trying not to notice.

It's an exhilarating performance -- "no lack of raw energy and visceral excitement," the Gramophone wrote. But when the angel of the Ninth comes forth to wrestle, Rattle can't quite get a grip on him. (Boulez, for better or worse, appears not to believe in angels.) I wonder whether, at 42, Rattle isn't simply too young to do this work justice. Bruno Walter was 62 when he made the Ninth's premiere recording (in the shadow of the Anschluss), 84 when he did his second version, for Columbia. Jascha Horenstein made his Ninth recording debut at age 54 (but he had more to say at 68); Otto Klemperer was 81. No surprise that the symphony of the century should call for more than a couple decades' of conducting -- and living -- experience.

My own short list of favorite Mahler Ninths includes two conductors -- Walter and Klemperer -- who worked with the composer; one -- Horenstein -- who was old enough to hear Walter premiere the work, in 1912; and four recordings -- Wyn Morris, James Levine (no longer available), Klaus Tennstedt, and Leonard Bernstein (with the Berlin Philharmonic) -- oddly clustered around 1979. The past 18 years have brought innumerable good releases -- Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Georg Solti, Eliahu Inbal Claudio Abbado, Michael Gielen, Libor Pesek, Gary Bertini, Leif Segerstam, Michael Halász, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Jesús López-Cobos -- but just one truly distinctive one, Bernstein's over-the-top Concertgebouw performance. Of Rattle's reading, the Gramophone concludes, "If in the final analysis, the vehemence of execution is not always allied to the generosity of spirit you find in the great performances of the past, is that any more than a recognition that we live in different times?"

It's now 1:30 a.M., and after a long evening spent listening to parts of some 25 Mahler Ninths, I can attest that the times are indeed different. As director of the Vienna Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic, Gustav Mahler performed mostly the works of composers whose lifespan overlapped his. Today's Mahler performers are now out of touch with his compositions by almost a hundred years (and with most classical music by far more than that). You can't blame Boulez or Rattle for not having suffered through all the upheavals of this century (though Boulez, born in 1925, was around for World War II and Hiroshima). But the truth is, despite all the millennial posturing, that we live in relatively cushy times -- and cushy times seldom produce great art.

Jascha Horenstein's legendary 1952 Vienna Symphony recording of the Mahler Ninth (on a two-CD Vox budget set, it's still the best introduction to this work) set the standard: flatulent winds, blasphemous brass (think Bosch or Brueghel), strings that are by turns sentimental and sardonic. Bruno Walter's ländler movements have a sly lilt, a sinuous sway, that he learned on the dance floor, not from the score. The "great performances of the past" are becoming increasingly past, as far removed from our sensibilities as Jean Paul, The Merry Widow, and waltzing. The Ninth that Telarc is set to release from Ben Zander and the Philharmonia of London (Klemperer's old orchestra) may offer a flashback to that old-time conducting. But in the next millennium, I wonder whether classical music as we know it won't go the way of the dinosaurs.

Then again . . . I turn to an essay titled "Gustav Mahler Up-to-Date?" and read, "Begone? If the works insist on survival there is no begone . . . You repudiate them? Even vehemently? But the works insist on remaining. Wonderful!" Those words of wisdom were written by . . . Pierre Boulez. Assuring us that performance trends may come and go but the music remains, and that if we can only keep from blowing ourselves up, we'll always have Mahler's Ninth, among other things, to remind us what it means to be human.

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