23rd February 2020
It could be that it is the shadow of 1907 that echoes in Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: the tragic death of his little daughter Maria and the diagnosis of a damaged heart. Added to which his leaving Vienna to go to the New World. Either way, the first three movements with their fragmented structure balancing between faltering and dissolving, their aphoristic tribal codes and their bizarre instrumentation could easily be interpreted as such. This is why Bruno Walter interpreted the work as a “Farewell’ and Alban Berg as a “Premonition of Death”. Yet Mahler was also faced with the fact that his marriage was in crisis.
.Semyon Bychkov, guest conductor with the Munich Philharmonic, was meticulously immersed in this disconnected patchwork of sound. He emphasized the physiognomy with gestures that were both clear and flexible, and never felt forced. In the Philharmonie, he turned what Mahler may have formulated in ghostly crisis mode into the hyper-expressive vocabulary of modernity. This was already evident in the overlong development of the first movement with its contrasting relief between pianissimo lyricism and triple forte “with supreme force” and in the recapitulation of the chamber-like “Misterioso”. In the second movement, Bychkov never exaggerated the rough dance-like rhythms; but rather focused on the minor section of the closing pianissimo. In the middle of the bizarrely instrumented fugati of the rondo burlesque, an ethereal D major passage and harp idylls floated solemnly. As is always the case with Gustav Mahler: after working through the garish dissonances of world turmoil, he draws a conclusion in the final movement – the dissolution of the disparity into the hope of redemption.
With Bychkov, the Munich Philharmonic, who had done a great job in mastering the complex work, celebrated the painful melting of the typical Mahler idiom with the dying pianissimo of the coda.