MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D Major – Minnesota Orchestra/ Osmo Vanska – BIS SACD 2476 (81:32) (3/1/23) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Recorded 21-25 March 2022, the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1909-10) nearly completes the survey of the symphonic cycle from Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra, leaving only the pantheistic Third to be documented. The Ninth Symphony – a number Mahler faced with some dread, given its terminus point for Beethoven and Bruckner – takes up the theme of mortality with a consciousness of both aggression and resignation, its opening rhythmic pulse of the Andante comodo a direct quote of the word “Ewig,” a sighing F# – E interval sung by the contralto in Das Lied von der Erde, confronts the two poles of materiality and eternity, in what Leonard Bernstein once characterized as “a series of deaths” embodied in this last of Mahler’s completed scores. The epic music, almost in spite of its tragic awareness, abounds in moments of irony and what Nietzsche calls schadenfreude, spitefully joyful malice. How explain Mahler’s frequent allusions to Viennese waltz and laendler motifs, especially the Johann Strauss waltz, Freuet euch des Lebens “Enjoy Life”? Mahler confronts the torments of imminent death with searing recollections of lost time. We hear Beethoven’s farewell motif, Lebewohl, from Sonata No. 26, Op. 81a. At the very climax of dissolution and emotional chaos, Mahler engages in a reconstruction of energies and identifiable tonality, writing “O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O Liebe! Verwehte!” The Time of Youth, Oh Love! Scattered, Vanished! Do we not hear the same plaint in Joyce’s bitter story of dark epiphany, “Araby”? Vanska’s slow evolution of chromatic urgency, spasmodic rebellion, and ultimate, falling thirds takes the better part of 30 minutes, and we cannot distinguish between catastrophe and glory, spiritual exhaustion and grudging acceptance.
The second movement, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb, seeks consolation in familiar folk dance formulas, only to find the occasion distorted and made grotesque. Ostensibly in the most protected tonal area of C Major, the music evolves into a waltz in E Major and a slower Ländler in F Major. Has all music become a medieval Dance of Death? The descending lyric from the first movement reappears, now a parody in the woodwinds, as Beethoven indulged in for the third movement of his Pastoral. The jerky rhythms and modal shifts become vaudeville after some eight minutes, a twirling tour de force for winds, horns, strings, and timpani. Then, from the initial sighing motif, that great sense of longing for transcendent light, some sign of higher meaning aside from or beyond life’s absurd parade of sensations. We hear distinct allusions to Mahler’s own Symphony No. 4 in G before the music suddenly assumes a frenetically militant stance, virtually calling to Kurt Weill for parody. The Viennese element asserts itself, only to be tossed about in a maelstrom of irony. The last bars ring with Nature’s cruel commentary, a jest: as Shakespeare’s Lear point out, the gods kill us for their sport.
Just prior to his composition of the Ninth Symphony, Mahler had been absorbed in arranging J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites for concert performance, and the intense application of polyphonic textures saturates the third movement Rondo-Burleske in A Minor, Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig. Vehemence and defiance clearly dominate, from the brass interjection that opens the proceedings to the furor of the ensuing double fugue. This movement soon becomes a full orchestral toccata of sorts, manipulated by step-wise descents and clashing cadences suggestive of universal pandemonium, music emotionally anarchic in its pulsing, jabbing, march figures and extended moments of swirling filigree. Suddenly, the atmosphere clears away the tumultuous debris to reveal a pained serenity, mit großer Empfindung, that eventually yields to the imperious throes of the irreverent, destructive forces that impel the music forward. The Minnesota brass and battery have a field day, literally, in the startling clarity of their impassioned, manic delivery of these contradictory energies, of which the hysterical coda provides the coup de grace to pave the way for the extraordinary, intimate finale.
The Symphony is framed by two Adagios, likely an idea of “fearful symmetry” inspired by Tchaikovsky’s procedure in his last symphony, the “Pathetique.” The emotional middle part of the Rondo-Burleske has become an extended lament or elegy for a dying way of life, a farewell to “the world of yesterday,” to cite Stefan Zweig. For the chromatic line, Vaska establishes a grand organ pedal that creates an unrelenting tension wherein small thematic groups enter and fade away in spasmodic sequences. To call the music “Brucknerian” seems appropriate, although the musical alchemy possesses its own erotic momentum, as afar harmonically as D-flat Major. Vanska permits portamento phrasing and slides to infiltrate the texture, an Old-World sensibility in the midst of groping figures, that Dmitri Shostakovich will find pertinent to his own aesthetic ambitions. The dying gesture draws out forever, esterbend, the layered chorale’s marking a time of dying from some distant star. Only two pages of music occupy the last six minutes of sound experience, and the result, especially in the ppp last measures, leaves us awed and confounded as to the nature of the vision or prophecy revealed. We do know that Vanska and his assembled forces have granted Mahler due respect.
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