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The Best for Last

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/10/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #9
Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnanyi (conductor)

It is a poignant fact that in the history of the symphony in the twentieth century the greatest example of the medium was written in the first decade of the period. The Symphony #9 of Mahler towers over all others in depth of expression, sincerity of emotion and level of profundity (only the amazing Sibelius 7 even comes close). At the last concert of the year at Carnegie Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra presented us with a marvelously rich performance of this watershed work.

Mahler knew that he was dying when he began to compose this piece and he opens with erratic phrases patterned on his defective heartbeat. From this hesitant opening he fashions an essay of great beauty, rich not only in melodic and harmonic invention, but also conscious of a grand architectural scale and edifying purpose. Maestro von Dohnanyi took great pains to expose this architectural plan, which in many ways is the central subject matter of this final Romantic masterpiece. Like the symphony's premiere conductor, Bruno Walter, von. D shaped each phrase in a loving manner and the first movement unfolded as a work in progress, with the process of creation from individual threads laid bare for all to hear. My only disappointment was the overall sound of the orchestra. I have not heard the Clevelanders for some years now and I seem to remember that they had a more lush string sound (they certainly did under Szell). Their aural totality now is far superior to the New York Philharmonic, for example, but still a far cry from the Philadelphia or Concertgebouw ensembles heard in town recently.

Mahler was haunted by the myth of the 9th symphony and knew that Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and his own mentor Anton Bruckner had each died during or immediately after the completion of the numbered opus. So superstitious was he that he named his great song symphony Das Lied von der Erde rather than its proper rank as the real Symphony #9. So convinced was he now that he was writing his ultimate opus that thoughts of Bruckner filled his heart. The second movement is one of those rollicking Upper Austrian pieces that can only have been inspired by the organist of Linz. Here von D. is particularly adept, capturing that Viennese lilt like a native (which he practically is) and producing much subtle head bobbing in the sold out audience.

For me, the make-or-break movement in this piece is the third. In this version, the battle between the waltz and the laendler raged ferociously and von D. whipped his troops into a frenzy, producing a whirlwind performance that stayed extremely tight throughout, even at the breathtaking tempo of the very ending. The movement ends with three phrases, the first allowed to end naturally while the following two are severely clipped to produce a greatly exciting effect very frequently missed by conductors otherwise competent in their Mahlerian credentials. This performance was right on point and the abrupt ending and the shocked silence which followed were chilling.

When Mahler began to compose the last movement he felt that this was his final testament and so he begins with a leap in the strings that is unmistakably reminiscent of the last music that Bruckner ever wrote, the great third movement of his Symphony #9 (both are in D Minor, itself an homage by Bruckner to the key of Beethoven's 9th). The movement proceeds to describe the act of dying itself as floods of memories and emotional regrets spill over in waves of gorgeous string sound (what that great critic Robert Schumann used to describe as Ueberfluss-that is "flowing over"). Rare for the critic, my eyes filled with tears during this section and pangs of my own personal regrets paid a visit to the hall where Mahler himself conducted so often (although of course not the 9th since he died before its world premiere). The final 100 measures of the work are frighteningly sublime as the personality of the auteur begins to ravel and the instrumental lines become thinner and thinner. Beautiful solos by first violin and cello suggest the oncoming sparse instrumentation and the orchestra slowly quiets, with more and more of them dropping out, like a ghostly version of Haydn's Farewell Symphony. Finally only a few strings are left and for a moment they all stop playing. But the patient recovers for one last fleeting memory and then all is silence. Maestro von Dohnanyi shaped this unforgettable section with a polished sense of grace and warmth but dropped his arms almost immediately thereafter, allowing the crowd to vent its emotion a little too early for my taste.

All in all a fabulous performance which was warmly received. A fitting end to a rich season at Carnegie Hall and a fine way for the Maestro to say goodbye (he is moving back to Vienna). Mahler didn't die after all and went on to complete the jarring Adagio for his Symphony #10 as well as much of its other material in short score. So the music at this venerable old hall does not end either and one glance at next season's schedule promises a very fine introduction into the next millenium. Perhaps the greatest work of the twenty-first century will be produced in the next ten years.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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