Mahler 9 - Terrifying Beauty

By Amber Kelly

Artist:  New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Date / Venue:  Friday August 8th - Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

All week I was priming myself for something special. This took the form of a rare bout with Mahler's 9th Symphony as the NZSO opened their latest season, Terrifying Beauty, at the Michael Fowler Centre,WellingtonMozart's Violin Concerto No.4 played worthy entrée to Mahler's profoundly moving, and what would prove to be his last symphony. Under the baton of renowned conductor Edo de Waart, the music certainly found its right audience.

The first half saw de Waart join forces with Dutch violin soloist Simone Lamsma who together led a smaller chamber orchestra in Mozart's violin concerto. Lamsma captured the youthfulness of Mozart's music with an intensity and sharpness which showed her as a fine soloist. Usually when I think of Mozart's solo and chamber works, it is hard not to think of such themes as indulgent virtuosity, youthful flamboyance and intricately penned melodic lines that flow lightly and effortlessly from the superior creative mind of a genius. It is, however, possible this is coloured by the impression the 1984 film ‘Amadeus' has left on me.

Watching Lamsma I didn't feel I was watching a musician needing to prove their Mozartian virtuosic credentials. Instead, I found a relaxed performer whose natural and perceptive approach captured the lyricism of the upper-stringed sections and brought depth and warmth to the slower movements. What I enjoyed most about this performance, aside from the welcome distraction of Lamsma's red dress, was the relationship between soloist and orchestra. It was a delight to listen to the delicate interplay between the two, and the orchestra proved worthy support for the violinist as she decorated the main themes of the concerto.

The audience showed their appreciation of this appetising prelude to the evening's main course - Mahler's 9th!

First reactions to Mahler symphonies are often to do with their length. Many run for well over an hour -- potentially challenging for both performer and listener. It's a demanding work to perform, its reputation par excellence. After three intense movements making up the first hour, the orchestra moves on to a final slow Adagio movement which, while it may not have the fast notes and the wild climaxes of the others sections, has its own complexities. And it lasts another twenty minutes!

All Mahler's symphonies are rich with specific musical references to events in the composer's life. The 9th was written during an incredibly difficult period which saw, amongst other traumas, his four year old daughter die from scarlet fever and the composer's own terminal diagnosis for a heart condition. It is unsurprising composers are superstitious about writing a 9th symphony. Fateful parallels put Mahler in the company of Beethoven and Bruckner whose own 9th symphonies became their unintended farewells. As Schoenberg said, "those that have written a 9th have stood too close to the hereafter". For me, the challenge for both player and conductor in taking on Mahler's 9th is to offer more than technical brilliance. The 9th is a symphony in which, when played well, the audience can lose themselves in the visual and emotional imagery inherent in the music. It hit that on Friday night as if we were taken on trip through Mahler's very existence.

The first two movements were performed splendidly and you could see the concentration of players and conductor as the music unfolded. There were some striking instrumental colours; the combination of rhythmical cellos and horns emerging from silence were particularly noteworthy. So too the tolling harp and the rich, clear and focussed brass were chilling. The transition from impassioned melody to the delicate series of duets, trios and quartets at the end of the 1st movement were very well played. The middle movements, though not as unbridled and wild as I felt the orchestra wanted to be, were still penetrating, and de Waart's sure footing led the orchestra successfully through the various changes in character and tempi. The solo trumpet near the end of the 3rd movement was incredibly touching as it transformed a punctuated burleske theme into a warm and tender melody.

The final movement was gripping, and at times heart-wrenching. The opening cry of violins was haunting, though I still wanted more from the strings as the passionate theme grew in intensity. The movement progressed. The themes and instruments began to dissolve. The silences grew wider; finally only the violins held on playing pianiss-iss-iss-imo until ultimate silence - death personified, prophetic.

Coughing distractions aside, the impact of the final movement is memorable. Overall, it was a standout performance and the five encores proved the orchestra was in fine voice.