Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Mahler Nine

Royal Perth Hospital and The Perth Concert are only two blocks away from each other. Mahler's ninth symphony lasts an hour and a half and is often performed as the only item in the evening's performance. Thanks to these two facts I was able to escape ward 2K at RPH to hear my favourite symphony played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

Pondering one's own death is something everyone does. I found it comforting that the universe had given me this opportunity to hear this particular symphony that is shrouded in death so close to a time in which I had longed for my own end to life. I was wanting death so desperately, while Mahler was haunted by it. Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorak, Schubert, Spohr and Vaughn Williams never lived to write a tenth symphony and therefore Mahler believed ninth symphonies were cursed marking the end of one's life on earth. There were other signs of his imminent death such as diagnosis of a heart condition and three tragic events occurring in 1908, which he interpreted as the three hammer blows of fate. He was so convinced by this suspicion that he tried to outwit it by titling his penultimate 'symphony' Das Lied von der Erde therefore delaying his post ninth symphony end.

This final complete symphony (yes he did punch out a sketch for his tenth symphony) is the pinnacle of romanticism, the peak of emotional assertion. Consider what else was happening in 1911; Strauss was writing in a neo-classical style, Stravinsky premiered Petrushka in Paris and the painters around Europe were experimenting with expressionism and futurism. The fact that this level of romanticism thrived and developed in such an avant garde artistic context amazes and thrills me. It is testimony to his skill as a composer. The symphony not only meditates on his fate, but contemplates the beauty and joy of life. The symphony transforms the listener to village fairs and walks in the fields and mountains. Mahler believed a symphony must be like the world, that it must embrace all. His wife Alma said of this symphony,
"He has accepted the world and come face to face with the inevitability of death and in that sense is no longer writing about himself. He has embraced everyone."

At the end of the first  movement I found myself in a state in which I longed to sleep and go to heaven, but alas as is god's wish the second movement started and I'm flung to a village in Austria. People are wearing ridiculous clothes, eating and drinking. Merriment abounds as the brass band plays. I awoke from my reverie to find myself in The Perth Concert Hall, my god how does Mahler do it? Indeed, he had embraced me and reminded me of my will to live.


This symphony is said to showcase orchestras favourably and it did indeed showcase the WASO. The lower brass and many individual players like the principal bassoonist, the bass clarinetist, the oboist, harp, piccolo, contabassoonist, concertmaster and cor anglais player to name my personal favourites played exceptionally, with real talent, skill and style. I felt that the whole orchestra was working hard to deliver what the conductor was asking of them. Fischer, the conductor, gives a very clear beat meaning it is easier for the musicians to know when to play, how to play well in time together. As a result of this there was some very fine playing, whole groups of musicians perfectly in time with each other as they passed melodies to each other, from one side of the orchestra to the other. Paul Wright of course is heaven sent. He is one of my favourite musicians and  I would do anything to hear him play, his solos were sublime.

Mahler makes rather extreme demands on the musicians, demands that haven't been made before his time. The results make the most beautiful sounds. One tune is divided up and played by more than one instrument, not at the same time but one after the other. They pass melodies around the orchestra like a ball in a game of football. Perhaps Mahler had been inspired by the work of Schoenberg and his creation of Klangfarbenmelodie or 'sound colour melody'. Another technique that Mahler used which the orchestra performed brilliantly is the way lovely sounds or timbres are created by mixing together different instruments at different volumes. An example is how a cymbal crash coincides with the high note of a trombone's tune, helping the melody aspirate its climax. Or the sound of 32 violinists playing pppp (musicians language for extremely quietly). One of the most exciting things about hearing Mahler live is that you hear a most gorgeous sound that you have never heard an orchestra make before and you can look around the orchestra to see who is playing to find a musical cocktail of clarinet and harp with a dash of violin or the cellos playing in the high register with the violins playing lower than them in their lowest register. Gorgeous.

I would have loved to have seen more basses in the bass section, seven is too few. There seemed to be a lack of confidence and therefore presence in the string sections, especially in the lower strings. The balance of the whole orchestra was good during solos but in the tuttis (all playing together) I felt there needed to be more in the lower strings in all volumes. The end of the concert was very special, as all the music slowly died away and ended the musicians held themselves completely still and not one person made a movement or sound in the whole hall, it created the most amazingly blissful silence.

1 comment:

  1. You have written a brilliant review: personal and intimate, yet grounded in genuine knowledge and passion for music, articulate in your expressions of praise and delight and also constructive in criticism (and the latter does not dampen enthusiasm). You take us out on a high note, drawing us into the magnificent silence.

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