Steph Power visits Cardiff’s St David’s Hall to review a BBC National Orchestra of Wales performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, conducted by Thomas Søndergård.
Gustav Mahler did not live to conduct his Symphony No. 9, nor even hear it performed. Instead, it was his close friend Bruno Walter who premiered the work in Vienna, June 1912, over a year after Mahler’s death from illness linked to a heart condition. In a cruel twist, the heart diagnosis had come right after the death of his young daughter Maria in 1907 – a dreadful blow on top of his ongoing marital problems with Alma Schindler-Mahler, and the political difficulties at the Vienna Hofoper (now Staatsoper) which would see him first head for America later that same year.
The conjunction between Mahler’s untimely demise (he was just 51 years old), these setbacks and the so-called ‘curse of the 9th’ has – unsurprisingly – led many to read a strongly biographical narrative into this monumental symphony; the final completed work, moreover, of a composer known for his extremes of emotional expression and predilection for personal references. Indeed, Mahler quoted from his own Kindertotenlieder in the work’s final bars, and as close a commentator as Alban Berg famously described the searing first movement as his ‘premonition of death’.
Yet, in a sense, the 9th was as much Mahler’s ‘New World’ symphony as it was his ‘farewell’, for he wrote to Walter from New York in 1909 that ‘I see everything in a new light – feel so much alive.’ Perhaps Arnold Schoenberg got nearest the truth when he remarked that ‘[Mahler’s] ninth is most strange. In it, the author hardly speaks as an individual any longer … this symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone.’ In other words, Mahler had stepped far beyond self-expression or personal narrative into a new realm of universal latitude.
But whatever the biographical content or meta-musical implication of Gustav Mahler’s 9th, both Berg’s and Schoenberg’s remarks encompass the intense, often simultaneous juxtaposition of joy and pain which lies at its root; a paradox seemingly unresolved, yet wrestled and somehow come to terms with by the extraordinary, peaceful close of the final movement. It is a profound journey, and one which gives any orchestra, no matter how hallowed, pause for thought. So it was thrilling to hear the work navigated with rare and compelling insight by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård at St David’s Hall. The sheer emotional acuity and dexterous musicianship was remarkable, from the sweep of the symphony’s unconventional slow-fast-fast-slow four-movement design to the myriad, tumultuous details of its complex inner workings. Translucence, bite, energy and deep pathos – it was all there and delivered with entirely unselfconscious virtuosity.
The very opening of the symphony showed how seriousness of intent need not assume ponderous, heavy phrasing. Here, the hesitant harp and horn motifs (ascribed by Leonard Bernstein and others somewhat fancifully to Mahler’s irregular heartbeat) led to a beautifully balanced, rhythmically light and yet wholly supported main theme from the second violins. This quickly combined with other elements from across the orchestra into a movement of real power and majesty, yet painful ambiguity. Such was the hallmark of the entire performance, which was a masterclass of nuance, contrast and finely honed phrasing. It would be impossible to name each superb soloist and section, but in the first movement, the duet between flautist Matthew Featherstone and horn player Tim Thorpe was outstanding… to add to the excellent harpists, a liquid bass clarinet, some fantastic bassoons, brass and string sections – including the magnificent double basses who propelled things from beneath with impressive sensitivity to the harmonic foundations they were laying.
A key factor was that Søndergård and his players trusted to Gustav Mahler’s precisely marked articulations and dynamics without fuss or over-emphasis – in itself, no mean feat. Decisions of bowing, muting and orchestral timbre, for example, were not just thought through, but applied with grace and instinctive understanding. This, together with Søndergård’s intelligently paced tempi, expressing both the urgent propulsion of the music and its juxtaposed, almost reluctant stasis, unlocked subtle depths of line and colour which I personally have never experienced aside from reading the score.
The two inner movements, often so bewildering and chaotic, were beautifully clear – notwithstanding the ambitious speed with which Søndergård tackled the frenetic waltz which bursts in at Tempo II of the second movement scherzo. The contrast paid off; pointing the differences between the waltz – in Mahler’s day a sophisticated, often sexualised urban dance form – with its slower, more countrified cousin, the Ländler. Both were satisfyingly ‘somewhat clumsy and very rough’ as indicated by Gustav Mahler, and together, through three distinct tempo sections, led palpably to the ‘very defiant’ third movement Rondo-Burleske. As for this latter, if Søndergård had any qualms as to how clear its architecture would be, he need not have worried. Whirling and rasping from manic activity to abrupt stillness and back, he took the orchestra and audience on a wild rollercoaster ride on the brink of instability with expert control.
Drawing on chamber as well as orchestral skills – and superbly led by orchestra Leader Lesley Hatfield as ever – the musicians played as one. In the long, slow final movement, the sheer poise with which the extreme high register of violins was set against deep, dark contra-bassoon summed up the relaxed confidence behind this dignified, yet cathartic journey into final repose. The entire work’s haunting pathos seemed encapsulated by ‘cellist Victoria Simonsen’s short, heartrending solo and the rapt final bars which followed.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their conductor can’t be praised highly enough. As for the audience, the long, hushed and reverent silence after the final notes died away said it all. An ending of real, if necessarily equivocal, tranquillity after the storms of bewilderment, anger and bitter grief – and a fitting tribute, as Thomas Søndergård later explained he had intended, to the late and very great Claudio Abbado.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7 February 2014
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 9
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård