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Dying (Painfully) and Transfiguration

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
06/04/2008 -  & June 5, 7, 13
Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 9
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Conductor)

Several times in the opening movement of my Ninth Symphony score, Mahler uses the rare expression Morendo, meaning “dying”, and there was no doubt that Mahler wished to make this his own “death and transfiguration”. But unlike Richard Strauss’s linear story-line, Mahler had already reached the limits of linear music, so giving his emotions body is probably the most difficult thing for any conductor to essay.

Give Lorin Maazel a certain amount of credit. He got the “transformation” part in the last movement right. After all, this is almost an orison, with a four-square theme in the strings. And yes, the prayer becomes more and more intense, the contrasts between soft and loud become sharper and sharper as the theme went on. Maazel showed the Phil strings off well (along with the contra-bassoon solos). The end, announced with ppp in the score he played with a forgivable ppppp, and it certainly impressed the audience.

But the first two movements, not only ignored the stoic nobility of the work, they were almost a perversity of Mahlerian flavor.

The opening is specifically an andante comodo, “moving without strain”. For some reason, Maazel did strain the music, with a sentimentality bordering on endless world-weariness. After two minutes of pushing and churning his orchestra, I started imagining Wagner snorting “Ach. Jewish decadence!”, for nothing was heroic here. The horns made their calls (with several notable fluffs), the brass and strings sighed. But Mahler specifically says, “Subito (aber nicht schleppend)”—quickly but don’t drag it. Yet something was always holding the orchestra down here.

It wasn’t the tempos, to which Maazel adheres with religious authority. But in a movement whose cohesiveness must be underlined, since the structure is hardly easy, Mahler took a more facile way out, allowing the solos to play their individual parts seemingly without connection to the stoic tragedy which the movement must suggest. The mood then was more pathetic than tragic, with a bathos that would make the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth sound like The Good Ship Lollipop.

At least, I thought, the devil-dance second movement, so akin to the demonic music of the Fourth Symphony, would bring up the mood, if only mordantly. But Maazel didn’t quite have it together even here. The first waltz theme was ham-footed, the second, introduced by trombones and tuba, had a forced sarcasm, and all the different rhythms of the movement blended into one.

The next Rondo-Burlesque is not difficult for a man of Maazel’s stature, and yes, he pulled it off fine. It was part quodlibet, part tragedy, the themes mashed together like an Ives collage, and the brass hit the spot.

Giving way to the final Adagio, and the final transformation, which Maazel conducted with his usual aplomb. It was not too late to resurrect the work, and the audience gave him a standing ovation. Phil audience, though, always appreciate seriousness, even if they sometimes confuse the depth with dreariness.

CODA: This is not a political statement, simply a suggestion. During the Republican convention this September, I hope the NY Phil and Maazel volunteer their services gratis, promising to play the “right” kind of music. Then, when the convention reaches its peak, the balloons pour over the stadium, with tens of thousands of Republicans cheering, waiting for John Philip Sousa to boost their spirits, Maazel can play the complete first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Oh, and lock the doors, so nobody can get out.

Harry Rolnick



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