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Mahler 9 with Marin Alsop

Back at the beginning of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's current season, Marin Alsop's comparison of the first symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein showed the latter wanting. On Saturday night at Strathmore, nearing the end of the season, Alsop brought together two late works by both composers, to the further diminishment of Bernstein. True, no composer should be asked to compete with Mahler's ninth symphony, a work that Bernstein himself, an important champion of Mahler's symphonies, thought of as providing the pattern for much of the modern music that followed it. Alsop, whose publicity machine regularly reminds us that Bernstein was her mentor, had Bernstein represented by a couple of pages he dashed off in 1986 for the reopening of Carnegie Hall (he was not even able to complete the orchestration in time). Bernstein ultimately repackaged this Opening Prayer, about five minutes of dewy Coplandesque chords, Hollywood strings, and intoned Hebrew (originally for baritone), as the last movement of his Concerto for Orchestra. Programming it was an extravagant waste of the velvety mezzo of Sasha Cooke, who sang the benediction from the Book of Numbers from the chorister balcony, and then sat to listen to Mahler.

Any chance to hear Mahler's ninth symphony live and played reasonably well, as it was on Saturday, is worth the effort. The work, completed in the last couple years of the composer's life and not premiered until 1912, after he died, is often described as pervaded by Mahler's fear of his own impending death. Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange notes that Mahler "was then forty-nine years old and more active than ever. Each year he crossed the Atlantic to conduct long seasons of operas and concerts in the United States." While "there is no denying that [...] the Ninth Symphony was written in the shadow of death," it was more the recent death of the composer's four-year-old daughter than the "serious -- if not fatal -- heart condition" that troubled Mahler's serenity. It was none other than Bernstein who popularized the association of the uneven motif that opens the ninth symphony with the sound of Mahler's irregular heartbeat, something that Charles Amenta (an M.D.) has examined and supported in an article (The Opening of the Mahler Ninth Symphony and the Bernstein “Heart-Beat” Hypothesis, .PDF file).

Mahler, Symphony No. 9:
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Dresden Staatskapelle, G. Sinopoli (live recording, 1997)

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Berlin Philharmonic, S. Rattle (live recording, 2007)
Our resident Mahlerian, Jens Laurson, has published a survey of some recordings of Mahler's ninth symphony, and in particular reviewed Michael Tilson Thomas's recording with the San Francisco Symphony. Ionarts has also reviewed the work in live performance, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim and with the NSO under Leonard Slatkin, both in 2005. Two recently released live recordings, shown at left, were my focus of study for Marin Alsop's recent attempt. Of the two, Sinopoli's late attempt with the Staatskapelle Dresden was preferable, an expansive reading full of energy but in no rush, especially in the outer movements. It was made in 1997 (but just released in the Profil-Edition Günter Hänssler series already hailed by Jens), just a few years before Sinopoli's fatal heart attack in 2001, during a performance of Aida at the Deutsche Oper. The liner notes to this disc, contributed by Eberard Steindorf, who was the orchestra's concert program manager and Sinopoli's personal assistant, relate how the recent death of Sinopoli's father was on his mind -- he had passed away suddenly while Sinopoli was on tour with the orchestra in North America the previous year.

As Sinopoli put it, to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Dresden Staatskapelle, this orchestra is not necessarily known for "dominant power and dazzling virtuosity," instead having "a tradition of heartfelt human expression." That is what makes this recording so pleasurable, whereas Simon Rattle's more recent take on the ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic is all bristle, edge, and hurry. The timings -- not always a reliable indication, true -- are in this case indicative, shorter than Sinopoli by a minute or two in the inner movements and by more in the outer ones (over three minutes in the fourth and five minutes in the first). The Berlin sound, all that gleam and muscle, is recorded in intense, close sound, but it sounds a little unreflective to my ears.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Alsop, BSO reach eloquent heights in Mahler's Ninth Symphony (Clef Notes, April 6)

Anne Midgette, BSO, Strong on Style but Not Passion (Washington Post, April 6)

Erik Wemple, What Did Midgette Say About the BSO? (City Desk, April 7)

T. L. Ponick, BSO Masters Mahler (Washington Times, April 6)
So far Marin Alsop's approach to a lot of music has a similarly unreflective quality, all dancing verve with little room for meditation, the latter more in evidence in Bernstein's five-minute trifle than in Mahler's much grander statement. As a conductor, Alsop has a fairly limited vocabulary of gestures, with a default setting of bouncy and agitated and a left hand that is constantly moving, often only in a mirror pattern of her beat hand. In her reading of the ninth symphony the transitions between sections and tempi often seemed awkward, more forced than organic and therefore not always unified. The first movement, thought to be on the theme of farewell because of the constant reference to a motif from Beethoven's "Les Adieux" sonata (as noted in fine program notes by Janet E. Bedell), was contained and gentle in Alsop's reading, only to be pushed ahead a little too nervously. An odd overemphasis of offbeats unbalanced the second movement, and a similar Bernsteinesque electricity was evident in the rough-and-tumble third movement, making the Burleske overly grotesque.

The fourth movement did not feel rushed as much as soupy, with emoted gestures from Alsop, who laid it on pretty thick. It suggested a conclusion that was superficially sad, rather than a deep tragedy welling up from within. La Grange notes that the principal theme sounds like a hymn, and others have suggested that it could have been modeled on Nearer My God to Thee or another hymn that Mahler may have heard in New York. The best interpretation, like Sinopoli's, lets the thread of grief pull itself from the spool at its own pace, until the almost voiceless quotation or allusion to Kindertotenlieder near the end. In spite of these shortcomings, the playing of the BSO continues to improve, with spartan brass throughout, especially in the horn section, and fine winds, especially the double reeds. While it was not a Mahler ninth for the ages, it was, as always, good to hear this glorious work in concert.

Next week the BSO and Marin Alsop will present a program combining Aaron Copland's third symphony and Bruch's first violin concerto (April 16 to 18), with concertmaster Jonathan Carney. This program will be performed exclusively in Baltimore, with no appearance at Strathmore.

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