Not Hale and Farewell
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 9
The Met Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)
An unscientific perusal of the internet reveals no less than 90 versions of the Symphony # 9 of Mahler available at the present moment on compact disc. Considering that the piece was virtually unperformed before 1955, this is a staggering number. By the time Mahler composed the Symphony # 7, he wasn’t even interested in presenting it for premiere, reasoning that the contemporary public would never understand it and it was a waste of his precious time to mount the large number of rehearsals necessary to properly prepare it for listening. He eventually reneged after four years and also directed the first performance of the 8th before his death. But at Carnegie Hall, Mahler only presented two of his symphonies with the New York Philharmonic, preferring instead a mainstream diet of Beethoven and Mozart. In fact, without the zeal of two of his personal associates, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, it is conceivable that the works of Mahler would still be collecting dust on a few scholarly library shelves even today. Leonard Bernstein, in this hall, permanently changed all of that and now it is considered a must for every aspiring conductor to be conversant with all ten of Mahler’s works in the genre.
The 9th is the composer’s most personal statement in symphonic form and has become a favorite for conductors in transition. Both Christoph von Dohnanyi and Kurt Masur have performed it in New York in recent years as a valedictory and now another maestro, perhaps on the move himself, has taken it in hand. James Levine is being ardently courted by the Boston Symphony and continually causes local critics to speculate on his future at the Metropolitan Opera. His health seems fragile these days (he conducted this afternoon’s performance from a tall chair placed on the podium) and he has begun to pare down his schedule of opera performances while entrusting more and more of the season to that Slavic Energizer bunny Valery Gergiev. If Levine had even one moment of doubt when he first programmed the Met Orchestra’s season at Carnegie for 2000-2001, it might have inspired him to present this ultimate leave taking symphony as an unspoken clue to his future.
Musically, at least, this future seems secure indeed. Levine is a man of great musical ideas and he tried one out on us right from the outset. Recognizing the similarities between the first and last movements of this work, Maestro emphasized at the beginning several juxtapositions of strings and brass which are discordant, the theory being that their very grotesquerie would serve to highlight the intense beauties of the finale. This is a fascinating approach, but it is debatable as to whether he went too far. The effect was somewhat marred by the sloppy showing of the brass in general and several entrances of various instruments which were ragged and disjointed. The second movement was rather flabby and never seemed to achieve the proper level of tension. Even though the accuracy of the players was high, the intensity was not. I even began to think of the performance as a whole as tired.
But this thought vanished in an instant when the high energy of the third movement took over. The bruitings and battles were extremely bloody and no holds barred. A veritable whirlwind ebbed and flowed about the stage, swirling everyone to the edge of their seats. Here this fine orchestra sounded extremely crisp and committed and, as Levine began to almost imperceptibly but inexorably pick up the tempo, the excitement was contagious. The last five minutes of this difficult movement were stupendous, the subtleties of phrasing amazingly well executed, the last three musical thoughts conveyed just the way they are written in the score (this is almost never the case in performance). For me, this third movement was the best that I have ever heard (in fact, until today my favorite wasn’t even one of the 90 performances in print, but rather the ancient Rosbaud vinyl).
Given the average string sound of the ensemble, the finale was extremely emotive. Levine led an unhurried reading, fraught with drama and nobility, very beautiful in its fragility. The solos of the flute, violin and viola were heart melting and the overall sense of portent omnipresent. Perhaps not a totally flawless performance, but truly a poignant experience listening to a weakened man, with a face a color somewhere between red and purple, conduct the orchestra that he loves so much in the Mahler 9 from a chair. Perhaps the most eloquent description of James Levine is what is not said. Let’s just leave it at that.
Frederick L. Kirshnit