Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Carl St. Clair Conducts Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler''s Ninth Symphony.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 
Costa Mesa

Gustav Mahler.
After the final long-drawn notes of his epic 90-minute traversal of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony faded at last into silence, Pacific Symphony Orchestra Music Director Carl St. Clair kept his hands raised for longer than any other instance I can recall when a conductor thereby suspends applause at the end of a major work that ends with a descent into silence. Indeed, such was the effect of the wondrous Adagio which concludes this symphony that one felt the really appropriate response would be simply to depart in silence, as sometimes happens after performances of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.

When the applause finally came, it was long, heartfelt, and wholly earned both by the conductor for his meticulous and comprehensive response to Mahler’s masterpiece and by the orchestra for its skill and commitment, collectively and individually, in bodying forth one of the longest and most momentous journeys in all music. Had it been practicable, Maestro St. Clair’s spotlighting of individual players could with justice have extended to just about every one of the near 100 musicians on the platform, with all that collective and individual excellence enhanced for the fortunate audience by the Segerstrom Concert Hall's state-of-the-art acoustics.

Mahler with his daughter Maria.
The Pacific Symphony’s pre-concert publicity about Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D/D-flat major, as well as the (excellent) program note, understandably emphasized the three blows of fate which fell on Mahler during 1907—his departure from the Vienna Court Opera, the death of his four-year-old daughter Maria, and the diagnosis of his fatal heart condition—and how these influenced the Ninth, which he began the following year.

In an exceptionally informative pre-concert talk, Dr. Alan Chapman drew attention to one Mahler biographer’s view that his major works could notionally be grouped into trilogies, in the last of which the Ninth is the central member of the group that also includes Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth Symphony—and thus may not be heard as a final death-greeting utterance. And alongside these views, the conductor’s own brief but heartfelt introductory remarks characterized the arc of the work as passing from “realization” in the first movement, through “reflecting” and “rejoicing” (movements 2 and 3) to “resignation” in the finale.

The Ninth begins like no other Mahler symphony, with a hesitant, irregular rhythm, pianissimo, on the cellos, immediately mirrored by the fourth horn, which St. Clair’s mentor Leonard Bernstein, for one, believed to represent the composer’s own faulty heartbeat. But there is an answer—an arching, four-note phrase on the harp, forte and marked Resonanztisch, that will have immense importance as the first movement progresses.

Carl St. Clair.
That this harp entry was perfectly weighted, just loud enough and resonant indeed, was the first indication of how thoughtfully detailed the interpretation was going to be, an impression rapidly confirmed by the easeful unhurriedness with which, after a little imprecision of ensemble near the beginning, St. Clair and his orchestra laid out the movement’s elaborate thematic exposition. The initial marking is Andante comodo, and for once that “comfortable” (but not complacent!) indication seemed exactly fulfilled.

In broad outline the first movement comprises successive waves of music that progress from stasis, through increasing tension and elaboration, to climaxes that collapse—with the harp motif now hammered out on timpani—but then slowly begin to engender the next wave. Each wave draws together and develops differently the many thematic and harmonic elements until the final and most brutal climax-plus-collapse leads to a long-drawn coda.

This most elaborate of the Ninth Symphony’s four movements, if taken too slowly, can not only feel somewhat interminable but also give the impression of a completed whole after which the remainder of the work may seem redundant. To my ears St. Clair, with a duration of a little over 28 minutes, got the balance just right between giving the movement its appropriate epic breadth but without any premature sense of finality—in his terms, “realization” but not yet “resignation.”

Mahler's composing hut near Tobiach, Italy, where much
of the Ninth Symphony was written in summer 1909.
The second movement is initially “at the pace of a leisurely Ländler,” heralded by bucolic upward runs on the bassoons immediately answered by crisp clarinet flourishes—a perfect sense of “new beginning” after the long rigors and exhausted conclusion of the first movement—if not quite, in this performance, as Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (somewhat clumsy and very coarse) as Mahler also marks the opening.

What critically influences the unfolding of this movement, however, is that Mahler also labels the opening as “Tempo I” and then, some 90 measures on, a somewhat faster “Tempo II.” Finally, heralding what is to some extent the “trio” section of a very elaborate scherzo movement, we come to “Tempo III”, Ländler, ganz langsam (very slow). All three Tempi have several marked recurrences, and St. Clair’s scrupulous observation of each, and navigation thereto, together with ever more devoted and skillful playing from the Pacific Symphony, entirely avoided any “enough already” reaction to a movement that is pretty long for its content (17 minutes in this performance) and in less skilled hands can seem unwontedly garrulous.

With the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, the work moves from “reflection” to “rejoicing” in St. Clair’s characterization. To me, this really doesn’t begin to cover it, as from the very start Mahler’s scoring gives an acid edge to the controlled tumult (those four flutter-tonguing flutes!). Eventually, after a long and seraphic interlude heralded by a solo trumpet, the tumult returns, lashed ever more violently to a Presto coda delivered here with life-and-death ferocity and precision by the Pacific Symphony.

Probably the last photograph of Mahler,
taken on his voyage in 1911 back from
New York to Vienna.
Though that coda is perhaps the stand-out virtuoso passage in this symphony, Maestro St. Clair’s handling of the preceding interlude was another signal instance of his masterful view of the whole work, its beauty—though fully expressed in exquisite playing—never indulged for its own sake but interpreted in the context of the symphony’s true homecoming to follow in the Adagio finale.

For this, St. Clair set a very slow opening tempo. This was one of those very rare instances in performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony where the finale, at around 30 minutes, was actually longer in duration than the first movement, but the overall vision, the majesty and intensity of the Pacific Symphony’s playing in its great central melodic unfolding, and finally the marvelously long-breathed control of the final page’s visionary Adagissimo kept any sense of over-extension firmly at bay.

Perhaps the strings even managed in the last few bars to achieve distinction between Mahler’s virtually impossible requests for pppp on the first violins, ppp in the seconds, pp for the violas, and ppp cellos, the whole body of strings marked ersterbend (dying) on their final, long-held chord. So death? Or “resignation”? Or acceptance?

The Tenth Symphony was still to come, fully conceived though with only two of its five movements orchestrated. But a truly great performance of the Ninth enables any and all of these conclusions to be valid, and underlines that a masterwork of this many-sided complexity always contains more than any words can express. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Thursday January 12, 2003, 8 p.m.

Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Other photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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