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Penultimate Farewell

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
06/02/2000 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 9
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

Once a conductor announces that he is leaving an orchestra, his thoughts begin to arrive at the proper way to say goodbye. Last season Christoph von Dohnanyi toured with the Mahler 9 as a way of creating a valedictory mood while still having several years left on his contract which he had no intentions of renewing (he is now being replaced by the ephemeral Franz Welser-Moest). The Ninth was designed by its composer to be his farewell to this mortal coil, but a sudden if transitory revival of his health sent him back to the study to compose the shell of a Tenth symphony, its searing Adagio now Mahler's final communication from the edge of the grave. The Ninth, with its four movements of structured leave-taking culminating in the quietly wispy strands of sound meant to evoke the last thoughts and breaths, is an ideal vehicle for a poignant and gentle opening farewell and it is left to the size of the ego of the protagonist to decide whether a final performance of the Beethoven 9 is in the cards when the actual day of departure is at hand. Kurt Masur is now busy plotting his escape (successor to be named later-Muti?) and programmed as the last concert of the season this tremendously evocative piece.

Masur did not matriculate in the Mahler tradition, growing up under the Nazis, where his music was banned, and then maturing under the Soviets, who were slow to adopt any of the music of our century. However, Maestro is particularly invested in the music of Bruckner and the links between the Viennese teacher and student are many. The New York Phil performed an excellent Mahler 1 at Carnegie recently, so my expectations were high for this evening. Certainly both conductor and orchestra tried very hard, but the finished product was highly flawed and I'm afraid that Masur's unfamiliarity showed in his clumsy handling of the essential Mahlerian idiom.

A terribly out of tune horn set the mood for the performance at the outset and the entire first movement sounded shrill and forced. I was, however, impressed with Masur's ability to bring out inner voices in the music as well as his aural image of the muted trumpets as toy instruments, nicely nostalgic for the composer's childhood in Iglau. The second movement cried out for the lilt of Schrammelmusik but instead plodded along in an overly controlled meter that left no breathing room for the lifeblood of the memories of Vienna so banal and yet so dear. The battle between the laendler and the waltz that is the marvelous third movement was moderately exciting but not wildly gripping, although it is worth noting that Masur and his forces played the last three phrases absolutely correctly, ending the first broadly and the last two crisply (often butchered in other less sensitive performances).

The last Adagio was actually quite moving for a long while, the strings really responding to the gorgeous interplay of soloists and sections but at some point the threads began to ravel in ways of which Mahler had never dreamt and it took some effort for Masur to husband his flock for the final death scene. He made a nice recovery and the last moments were, if not chillingly moving, at least sobering and affecting. There was a refreshingly long interval of silence, so important for the overall experience of this mirror of expiration, before the applause began and this was much appreciated (and extremely rare in bumptious New York). Not the greatest way to say goodbye for Maestro, but he still has two years to plan his final statement. Maybe a gentle way of handling his actual exit would be to end with the one of the two inspirations for the Mahler, either the spiritual Bruckner 9, so close to Masur's own heart, or, even more self-effacingly, the Haydn "Farewell Symphony"?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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