ANNIVERSARIES: Mahler's Ninth Symphony Premiered 100 Years Ago


Written after Gustav Mahler had been diagnosed with a life-threatening heart disease, his Ninth Symphony -- the last the composer completed-- has been widely interpreted as reflecting that knowledge, but of course there are many reactions produced by the prospect of death. The lengthy first movement is a meditation on the mysteries, terrors, and -- yes -- consolations of death. Leonard Bernstein, who never shied away from romanticizing biographical details, proclaimed the asymmetrical rhythms at the beginning to be a portrayal of the composer's irregular heartbeat.

The cries of the muted brass are poignant, a bit afraid, but somewhat assuaged by the occasional reappearance of a beautiful melody that seems to promise relief from earthly cares. But the nervous twitterings of the winds, and the lengthy sections of quiet foreboding, display an overriding unease. The dances of the second movement are cutely clumsy; the subsequent Rondo Burleske has a sort of suave ferocity, full of upheavals and disruptions. The elegance with which these brutal blows are delivered could even be said to recall Mahler's poor treatment by some elements of Viennese society. The swift viciousness of the movement's close is startling. The finale, among the most gorgeous in Mahler's oeuvre, displays an acceptance of the inevitability of death and looks forward to the eternal peace the religious Mahler hoped for.

The much-loved conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962) spent important parts of his formative years working as Mahler's assistant in various capacities. Walter was one of the few conductors of the time (along with Willem Mengelberg and Otto Klemperer -- another former assistant) who later kept the Mahlerian flame burning after his music went out of fashion. On June 26, 1912, 13 months after Mahler's death at age 50 of a blood infection, Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic (which Mahler had led for a decade) in the first performance of Mahler's Ninth.

In those days of primitive acoustic recording techniques, it was inconceivable that a vast, 70-minute (or longer) work such as this could be documented, but a quarter-century later Walter again took the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic for the work's first recording. After World War II, the hyper-romantic performance style heard to an extent on this January 16, 1938 recording -- with its expressive phrasing and string portamento -- fell into disfavor. So in several ways this is the closest we can come to hearing this symphony as Mahler would have expected it to sound.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Walter's interpretation is that he favors much quicker tempos than are used nowadays, when many recordings of this work spill over onto a second CD. Walter's total time is a bit less than 70 minutes; Leonard Bernstein is in the neighborhood of 89 minutes in his recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (he's faster with the Berlin Philharmonic: 82), and Herbert von Karajan's 1981 studio reading nears the 86-minute mark. Yet Walter doesn't sound rushed. His fast inner movements are properly lively, while the longer, slower outer movements don't grasp for exaggerated pseudo-profundity. There's no loss of expression, either; if anything, this is one of the most overtly emotional performances the work has ever received. The fact that the orchestra seems to take a while to warm up, and even at its best hardly displays the technical adeptness modern listeners are used to, pales to insignificance in the face of such a perceptive and heartfelt interpretation.

The audience coughs a lot in the first movement, but the recording sonics are acceptable for the period, presenting a realistic picture of the orchestra even in mono. Anyone who would listen to this unique reading and grouse about its petty defects is missing the forest for the trees. Music-making doesn't get any more moving than this.

If you want a more modern recording than this, there's Walter's more lingering stereo version from 1961. More modern than that? Karajan's loving version in concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982, as he contemplated his own mortality, is absolutely gorgeous. Simon Rattle's two versions -- one with the Vienna Philharmonic, the other with the Berliners -- are both superb. Versions by Karel Ančerl (Czech Phil.), John Barbirolli (Berlin), and Carlo Maria Giulini (Chicago) are also memorable. (Do avoid both of Bernstein's Deutsche Grammophon versions unless you're a completist; the Amsterdam one features a ridiculously sensual finale, while his Berlin outing is flawed by a missing trombone part. No complaints about his emotionally powerful first recording, though!) - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.