Mahler’s Ninth. Vladimir Ashkenazy Conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

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Gustav Mahler.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 18 May 2011

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
conductor – Vladimir Ashkenazy

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K415
piano – Steven Osborne

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 9
I. (Andante comodo)
II. (Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb.)
III. Rondo. Burleske. (Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig.)
IV. Adagio. (Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend.)

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s programs for his Mahler cycle are very generous, invariably opening the already enormous symphonies — though he makes them seem short — with a concerto, sharing disinterestedly with the fine soloists. I already admired Steven Osborne as a very artistic pianist from his recording of the Rachmaninoff Préludes. He seemed here to have in his mind the peculiar thematic unity of this Mozart concerto and his close relationship with the orchestra, sometimes leaving sublime and well judged silent moments between them and his cadenzas, gave the piece wholeness.

In the sonata form, the interstitial development parts between the returns of the various themes are very interesting and expressive in themselves, much more than mere standard harmonic progressions or practical necessities tying on the next opportunity to play melodious music. In Mozart they are especially fascinating, often surprising and colorful, sometimes modern-sounding in their fast modulations. Mr. Osborne gave these their due attention, playing them as touchingly as the the lovely melodies in the themes. He seemed to understand Mozart’s unique combination of exuberance, humility and poignancy. The piece ends so humbly, with a light, quick tumble of a few notes gently fading, reflecting the Mahler to come.

Steven Osborne. Photo: Eric Richmond.

Richard Strauss once wondered about Mahler, to his face I believe, ‘Why don’t you write an opera? You could write such a good opera since you’ve put on so many at the Wiener Staatsoper.’ Strauss didn’t understand and Mahler got pretty angry. In a way Mahler’s later symphonies are operas without the physical theatre, in the Sixth’s, Seventh’s and Ninth’s cases, without even singers, a sort of total art, in a subjective sense — if that term doesn’t require total sensory stimulation — with vivid use of color and articulate deep expression. The level of abstraction attained by giving up words and human voices enabled him to express more faithfully what really gripped him. The Ninth, like all good symphonies, even more so for Mahler’s but especially in his Ninth, has a multitude of contents, often all at the same time — ambiguity and paradox seem easily expressed, even refined in Mahler. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s and each of the instrumentalists’ attention and care for each melody, theme, chord and layer in the music make this so clear even as the complexity of the music seems to nourish them; they generously create something fascinating and consoling to listen to — in fact partly because of its complexity it sticks with the listener long afterward.

Mahler by this symphony seems to have attained a subtlety of expression in tone color nearly to the point of continuous gradation. His orchestra is like a being born with a perfect singing voice for its subject. Though the orchestra is large, no instrumentalist, soloist or otherwise, can, or does in this concert, hide in the mass, and this is a good thing, it renders nonsensical the concept of weighing the importance of the individual against the importance of the whole, and we find a marriage or rather a transcendence of that dichotomy between the individual and the collective, or at least a metaphor thereof. It’s important that Maestro Ashkenazy seems to have taken much time to contemplate the score and rehearse with the orchestra. I fancy Ashkenazy’s being a pianist helps too, his fingers are very expressive when he conducts, perhaps expressing something extra to the players. Often in the concert it seemed as if the music were playing through the orchestra.

Ashkenazy began the music very slowly, the long silences drew the listener in and the harp strings plucked at their ends made an eery sound like a kind of somber zither. Mahler used this striking color towards the end of his Sixth Symphony, so its as if the Ninth takes up from there. The soft horns play a large role here, as they do throughout the whole piece, while the trombones are relatively rare. The huge climaxes in the first movement were about as loud as one would want to hear, but still had detail, bringing out their thickness and depth and their internal colors. There are very beautiful parts in the first movement, in the complex counterpoint and where the contrapuntal lines are contrary, they have the beauty of imperfection. The instruments are so well blended, one isn’t aware of the different sections of the orchestra.

The second movement’s colorful tempo indication leaves much to the conductor’s interpretation without the conventions and associated history attached to the usual allegro, andante, etc., though the Ländler as an old peasant dance has attached to it a larger more subjective social history. Thus, though not what you’d call beautiful music, it has an earthy, bodily humanity in this movement, literally as Mahler described it, movement. The stopped up horns lost their nobility and showed the versatility capable of that instrument and harpist Louise Johnson showed her versatility, playing a beautiful, moving solo later in the piece, but here taking on a tone without beauty but with no less color or character. This character is not so much purely repulsive or grotesque or destructive in its lack of grace, but perhaps more like the beasties which come out for Faust (Mahler was of course deeply into Goethe and exchanged letters with his wife about Faust), indeed the joining in now and again of the trombones in the loud but oddly colored end of their timbre’s spectrum gives this character a sub- or preter-earthy, rather than unnatural, quality, indeed for Mozart the trombone was a supernatural instrument. Beauty does show in places in this movement, in returning themes and their combinations, related to the first movement’s, but there are also the spiky rather modernist forte flute melody which is quite brash and Janet Webb played it with great understanding, and the piccolo’s bent notes which introduces a strange subchromaticism. These woodwinds evoked Pan, or a faun, and when the flute played with the lovely lone violin theme (Dene Olding), it was as if Orpheus played a duet with Pan. This marriage of high beauty and messy earth though, by this point at least, not slovenly earth, occurs before our ears, the opposites meeting by necessity in a different plane, a supernatural one.

In the third movement the orchestra plays more in blocks, the violas alone, the violins alone, cellos and basses, etc. not so much separate from each other but as if a realignment of the orchestra had to take place after the intense mixing and blending and the journey of the second movement. Roger Benedict’s viola solos were very beautiful and touching while restrained, and in the last movement were even more so. Mathew Wilkie and the other bassoons’ deep color, and that of the oboes, clarinets and english horn were remarkable while fitting into the symphony’s argument as a whole.

In the last movement, the strings locked in rich sustained chords, progressing harmonically, changing one note at a time were Schubertian, the varied tone of the violins, here soft, pure and hollow, here richly colored and thick, and the unhurried way they savored these parts made for an affecting and generous level of expression. Paul Goodchild elsewhere in the movement empathized with this quality, playing the forte trumpet solo with subtlety of tone. Despite the dissonant layers and the forte climaxes toward the end, the strings finally attenuate and soften. The last violin left lightly draws out a fine note diminishing, but seeming with the memory of the whole piece contained somewhere in it and fades to its soft echo and then to nothing, several moments of comfortable silence. Ashkenazy quoted the description that this is like the ‘last string of matter disappearing from the universe’, and that’s right — it transcends matter, leaving the noncorporeal, immaterial other, free even of energy, the quintessence, radix ipsius.

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.