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A Placid Pleasing 9th

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/03/2024 -  & February 22 (Vienna), March 6, 8 (West Palm Beach), 2024
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)

F. Welser-Möst (© Julia Wesely)

Only when I experience intensely do I compose. Only when I compose do I experience intensely.
Gustav Mahler

When I asked how music is composed, Mahler declared, ‘God, how can you ask such a thing? Do you know how a trumpet is made? One takes a hole and wraps tin around it. That’s more or less what composing is.’
Natalie Bauer-Lechner

Franz Welser-Möst started and ended his three‑day stint with the Vienna Philharmonic with two Symphonies No. 9, neither by Ludwig B. Rather he took two composers who, in America a half century ago, were hardly ever performed. In fact, when I was a wee lad, a new organization called “The Mahler‑Bruckner Society” was formed to pair the two monumental symphonists.

Mr. Welser-Möst started on Friday with Bruckner’s “Unfinished” Ninth Symphony in a quite splendid performance. And while he had given us the Cleveland Orchestra a few weeks ago, his affinity with the Vienna Philharmonic was apparent.

Yesterday afternoon a 9th of a very different stripe was played.

The Bruckner is always easy to follow. He might be long‑winded to the uninitiated, but his musical pathway was a glory of towering trees, quirky melodies and of course many an attempt to reach his God. (To Whom the symphony was dedicated.)

Then we come to Gustav Mahler. His God was not Bruckner’s. It was Goethe’s God, it was a pantheistic God, a God who never leaned down from the Crucifix, but was born, grew and gave salvation to the mind.

That ain’t so easy to do. And his 9th Symphony has never been easy to perform or hear.

Oh, let me take that back. Mahler was grieving over the death of his daughter. He had been thrown out of the Vienna Opera due to anti‑Semitism. And a doctor had found, in Mahler himself, some would‑be fatal parts of his body. His death would be soon.

So what did Mahler do? In his four movements, the first and last were suitable obsequies. And the middle movements? Fun and games. The same kind of eccentric waltzes of the Alban Berg work the first night, and La Valse on Saturday night.

I’m not certain that Maestro Welser-Möst caught movements that exuded tunes and shadows of tune–contrasting with what Freud might have told him was hysteria. Both are more difficult in their way than the bookend movements, which speak for themselves.

Mr. Welser-Möst tried to realize the dichotomy in the Scherzo of bubbling waltzes and warped rhythms, yet I could hear little change. As to the following Rondo-Burlesque, who can really create such a carnival movement? One looked for those epiphanies of stillness, those jolting changes. And while Mr. Welser‑Möst played it well, one simply didn’t feel the skull beneath the skin.

G. Mahler (Moritz Nohr, 1907)

The “tragic” movements were performed almost without a conductor. This is a compliment. Maestro Welser‑Möst didn’t “interpret” these movement. He played them exactly as written. When the drums pounded in the opening, they were demonic. When the brass muttered their themes, they performed–albeit with bad fluffs–with heavenly tones.

As to the Vienna Phil strings, one had to wait for the finale, when the entire section offered a medieval chorale before launching into this long movement. Scribes more worthy than myself have described it as a movement about death, life‑forces, psychoanalytic visions or about grieving. And while these words are useless for other composers, Mahler understood them and translated them into the most glorious tones.

This movement fades into, well, not Nothingness. But when played right, the Zen “nothingness” transcends stillness into eternal silence. I didn’t hear Mahler’s spiritual transcendence. What I did hear was a great orchestra, a great conductor and all the right notes for a very great symphony.

Harry Rolnick



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