Daniel Harding realization of Mahler’s last symphony presents the work as an ongoing miracle and paradox of sound and sensibility.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Daniel Harding – Harmonia mundi HMM 902258, 82:37 (3/23/18) [Distr. PIAS] ****:
Amidst a personal world of increased uncertainty and loss—the death of eldest daughter Maria Anna in 1907; the end of a storm-laden career at the Vienna Court Opera; a diagnosed heart condition; and a distinct alienation of affection from wife Alma—Gustav Mahler in 1908/1909 set to work on his Ninth Symphony, which to the hyperactively superstitious Mahler meant playing with “fateful fire.” Mahler sought his Alpine work-retreat at Toblach among the Dolomites in South Tyrol. The new symphony would “complete” a tradition of Austro-German symphonies, but it would no less look forward to a concept, perhaps adopted from the Tchaikovsky Sixth, of bracing two fast movements within the taut power of two massive adagios. As much as a sense of bitter despair or resignation infiltrates this music, it persistently rushes into a confrontation with life’s furies and rewards, love and unbridled, pantheistic reverie. True, the music shares with Das Lied von der Erde the ewig motif, the music’s drooping, “heartbeat” rhythm: the main beat articulated by cellos and low horn, followed by a four-note figure in the harp’s low register, a muted horn fanfare, and a vibrating viola figure on two notes. The tympani will intrude with a note of dire consequence, and the element of grotesquerie and emotional distortion in d minor becomes as much of the panorama as the anguished nostalgia.
Recorded 8-10 September 2016, the sonic image for this performance proves immensely alluring, courtesy of Tobias Lehmann. The first movement, Andante comodo, juxtaposition of sweet remembrance and threatening, volcanic fanfares, often funereal, passes across a landscape marked by trombone, muted brass, and flute, while the strings weave uneasy consolation against the harp. Eventually, after the better part of thirty minutes’ alternation of grief and passion, the horn, flute, and violin proffer something like serenity.
If the second movement Im tempo eines gemaechlichen Laendlers can be said to “respond” to the emotional appeals and outbursts of the first movement, its sensibility suggests nihilism. Set as three incongruous dance sequences, the music pits two country dances against a bizarre waltz. Each of the dances transforms into a parody of itself, and so becomes a twisted Totentanz. Bassoons, clarinets, violas, and horns compete with violins and oboe in the course of this weird labyrinth. If the intent has been to create Mahler’s answer to Mozart’s K. 522 “Musical Joke,” the colossal scale of bitter humor finds an appropriate coda in the piccolo and contrabassoon, which imply that the comedy should have ended sooner.
Mahler calls his third movement a Rondo-Burleske, which demonstrates his mighty contrapuntal prowess in the course of a plethora of thematic ideas introduced by trumpet, horns, and strings. As kaleidoscopic as the evolving tumult proceeds, it seems “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” An emotional vacuity persists in the maze of sounds, in which sweet beauty and harrowing ugliness rather converge as the play of notes becomes ever-more frantic. Harding manages to maintain a Viennese frivolity in the course of the madness, and we can sense how closely Kurt Weill and Egon Schiele hover on the horizon. A thoroughly tranquil moment does arise, via the solo trumpet, intoning a melody that will prevail in the work’s final movement. The delicacy of this moment has an E-flat clarinet disrupt it, so as to allow the forces of dissolution to have the last word, all rather virtuosic, speaking in terms of orchestral color.
The range of the last movement Adagio does not merely “recapitulate” Mahler’s opening sensibility but extends it, harmonically speaking, to D-flat Major. Doubtless, if this music consciously represents a “dying declaration,” it contains truly passionate outpourings, even quoting a moment from his grievous Kindertotenlieder, with the violins’ intoning the melody for “the day is beautiful.” There are moments that Harding and the Swedish Radio approximate what could be deemed a “Bruckner” sonority in this last movement, given its broad, spacious breadth. But the urgent string figures, consonant with the horn work mark the music as indubitably Mahler, and Harding does not stint on slides and portamentos to underline the point. The bassoon and contra-bassoon suggest (Lisztian) depths to the journey, which we now realize as an extended set of variations, much in response to the Beethoven Op. 111. Paradoxically, Mahler invokes diatonic harmony to realize the opening hymn that becomes increasingly chromatic, what Leonard Bernstein characterizes as the various “deaths” in this music, of harmony, identity, and Western civilization. The search for resolution may, for some, reside in the last, transparent chords, which may harbor cosmic possibility.