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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Michael Tilson Thomas and Vienna Philharmonic Stop Time With Mahler’s Ninth

REVIEW: Michael Tilson Thomas and Vienna Philharmonic Stop Time With Mahler’s Ninth

Above: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Richard Termine

MARCH 7, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Gustav Mahler in 1909

Gustav Mahler in 1909

Michael Tilson Thomas made his conducting debut with the San Francisco Symphony, which he has now led for more than two decades, with Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony in 1974. He has since become renowned for his interpretations of Mahler, and to cap off the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's appearance at Carnegie Hall this week, the maestro (who conducted two of the orchestra's four concerts here) helmed a consummate account of this monumental symphony.

There was a time when Mahler's music was "new music," a time when his behemoth works were subject to the virgin ears, and judgement, of critics and audiences. Now his symphonies, which can last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, are regarded worshipfully and have devoted aficionados. For a few of his later years, of course, Mahler was a New Yorker. He conducted both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, and gave his final concert in Carnegie Hall in 1911, a few months prior to his death.

Today’s New York clamored to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play the Ninth Symphony, often referred to as Mahler's "Farewell" Symphony, on that very stage. The audience was rapt, collectively holding its breath in anticipation of the first upbeat. Audiences these days are rarely so focused -- a congregation of the devout, readying to participate in a ritualistic exorcism of sorts.

This symphony has frequently been described as being about death. True, Mahler had recently lost a young daughter, and had himself been diagnosed with a serious heart condition, and true, he quoted Beethoven's "Les Adieux" Sonata in the symphony, scrawling "Lebt wohl" (Farewell), in the score. But scholars also point to hopeful future plans mentioned in his letters of the day, and he also quoted a Johann Strauss waltz, "Freut Euch des Lebens" ("Enjoy Life"). He also began a tenth symphony.

Whether the piece is meant as a farewell to life or a hymn to death, two things are clear: that Mahler was always a fiercely autobiographical composer, and his Ninth Symphony is pure musical catharsis. And that catharsis is what this audience came yearning to experience. MTT, who is this year's "Perspectives" Artist-in-Residence at Carnegie Hall, relished the experience, too, commanding the Vienna Phil with relaxed poise and expressive freedom.

The Vienna Philharmonic has a definitive sound. Like many European orchestras, they play like chamber musicians. Each individual contribution has a place, is listened for. And they also know how to harness the hall’s acoustics as an extension of their instruments.  Each section of the orchestra exudes personality. The strings have a limitless range of attack, and a glistening sound, present even in the softest of dynamics. The woodwinds play with a fullness that allows them to mesh with the brass and strings, a useful skill in Mahler's complex writing, frequently doubling and entwining the instrumentation for innovative coloristic effect. The brass are indefatigable, with a piercing, unapologetic energy. The horns, given Herculean feats to conquer in this symphony, are spectacular.

Photos by: Richard Termine

Photos by: Richard Termine

The symphony, like many of Mahler's, has an unorthodox form: a massive, slow first movement, followed by a dance-like second movement, then a dark, conflicted fast movement, and finally, an even slower movement. In Tilson Thomas's hands, the opening Andante comodo is like a journey into memory. Immediately, as the motives unfold, like the sparse pages at the beginning of a book, there is a sense of wistfulness, a sense that something has been lost, a sense of reflection.

Conducting entirely from memory -- without a score -- Tilson Thomas was physically unencumbered in connecting with the musicians. They know the Ninth in their bones, of course. The first recording of the piece is a live recording of Bruno Walter (who also conducted the posthumous premiere) with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938. But, MTT commanded these forces, communicating his vision, guiding the wild shifts in mood and thick texture with a clear point of view.

Two thoughts came to mind as I basked in the richness of this first movement's voyage through the human experience of the passage of time, hearing in it an emotional response to memory and loss. First, what would Mozart think of what Mahler has managed to wring out of the symphonic blueprint he and his contemporaries developed a century earlier? Second, how is it that another hundred years later, this music still sounds so fresh? It exists within a rift in the space-time continuum.

The second movement begins as a rustic country dance, a flashback to a more innocent time, then gradually morphs into a grim, mysterious waltz darkened with chromaticism and feverish rhythm. When the violins enter with their heavier answer to the light opening phrases, it's impressive how the sections of the orchestra can play in different planes of tempo at once, in spirited discourse.  The horns enter with their questioning call, trills as light as a feather (no mean feat on the horn).  The orchestra also impresses with how rough and gritty they can play. New York City has rubbed off on them, after a few days in town.

The third movement begins with a sinister trumpet motive, hearkening a scene of conflict. A fugue-like fracas ensues, the intricate contrapuntal texture in the strings reminiscent of the East River's Hell Gate tidal strait, the deadly currents moving every which way at once. 

The movement takes a delirious turn, however. A series of magical harp glissandi usher in a sequence of fleeting deam-like moments, the music evaporating into the ether like a soul departing its earthly trappings. A ferocious struggle suddenly ensues. Eventually, the grim reaper, or doom, arrives with a stern fanfare in the brass. Vienna’s low brass play this with a stony, ashen, matter-of-fact-ness.

Mahler’s manuscript of the last movement.

Mahler’s manuscript of the last movement.

Finally, we arrive at the fourth movement, one of Mahler’s sublime Adagios. Tilson Thomas drew from the string section a fat, full-throated sound. The horns, too. It’s amazing that the orchestra has the endurance and power to commit as fully as they do to this wrenching movement, given the preceding hour’s demands. But, MTT knows how to pace things for maximum payoff. The final, patiently drawn out minutes were like layers of atmosphere peeling away from the curvature of the earth. As the final note resonated into silence, Tilson Thomas held his left hand in the air, as if trying to maintain a grasp on something that had slipped away irretrievably.

***

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