There are, speaking in broad generalisations, two main ways that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is performed. One sees it as the composer’s farewell to life, an elegy that celebrates, fears, stands tall, and refuses to go quietly into the good night. It’s farewell “from all whom he loved – and from the world!” wrote conductor and contemporary Willem Mengelberg in his copy of the score, farewell “from his art, his life, his music.” This school is by far the more common, and encompasses a wealth of different styles within it.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra  ©  Benjamin Ealovega
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

The second approach takes its cue from certain of Mahler’s contemporaries. To be sure, Mahler quotes and alludes to his own works, Beethoven’s “Lebewohl” Sonata, and even a Johann Strauss II waltz. But he also completed the symphony in the same year as Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, wrote anticipating the fractured techniques of Anton Webern, and foreshadowed the expressive atonality of Alban Berg. Here and in the almost completed Tenth Symphony, it is easy to see Mahler on the edge of the Second Viennese School who so adored him.

I’ve exaggerated the dichotomy, but Esa-Pekka Salonen, like Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen, is very much of the second school. Salonen has little truck with the cosseting that other conductors find to offset the Ninth’s horrors. Much as Salonen knows that this is a piece fundamentally about life rather than death, and that at times it can be treated sentimentally, in his hands this music seems to contain beauties that, as Schoenberg put it, “dispense with visceral warmth”. Even if he doesn’t push things quite as far as Schoenberg also thought – that the Ninth could best be appreciated by those “who feel comfortable in a climate of intellectual coldness” – there is a distance to his reading. Not for him the overwrought emotionality of Leonard Bernstein: instead Salonen displays a lucid attention to detail, a restraint with rubato, and an eye for modernist colour and motivic development.

On those terms – and I am not one of those who finds this approach uninvolving, having no preference between schools – this was as good a performance from Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra as one could expect. Throughout the symphony this orchestra revelled in the opportunities that Mahler’s tiny cells of phrasing provide for characterised solo or sectional work, whether that meant a supreme attention to counterpoint in the strings or the individual contributions of principals Samuel Coles, Gordon Hunt, Katy Woolley, and others. It was those inner workings that made this reading special. The clarity of sound that Salonen drew from the Philharmonia exposed Mahler’s counterpoint with uncanny power, which is no small triumph in the fuzzily dead acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall. Even at the extreme speeds Salonen adopted for the Rondo-Burleske, usually unheard fugal details emerged.

The sprawling structure of the opening Andante comodo emerged as one whole, beginning in almost disinterested fashion but exploding with wrenching dissonance. Here was a dark, chilly world, clearly in Webernian vein. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s violin solos refused to devolve into solo spots, as with Ida Bryhn’s viola and Timothy Walden’s cello. Yet this was no mere working-out of themes, for Salonen imparted a necessary sense of struggle, and of loss. The second movement, a Ländler that dissolves into a waltz, was truly grotesque, at once restrained and piercing in its irony. It seems wrong to think of this movement as similar to Ravel’s La Valse, but there seemed some kinship here in Mahler’s decadent breakdown. The Rondo-Burleske was unpredictably demonic, whipped up at the end with a series of vicious accelerandos, throughout which counterpoint remained audibly in tact.

The concluding Adagio is where interpretations tend to differ most. Here Salonen gave no comfort, reflecting on what had already been lost rather than living those memories again. Where other conductors find valedictory nobility, Salonen’s farewell was angular at times, suitably unpleasant at others. The Philharmonia found deep wells of string tone and a hollowness to the winds to match Salonen’s long paragraphs and immaculate pacing. The final pages, whispered away, were brittle, the cellos barely audible, a minimum of vibrato to be had in the other strings. Such quietness is almost impossible in this hall.

This performance may not have been to everyone’s taste. Salonen’s style eschews the psychodrama once so effectively reenacted by Bernstein on this stage. But the silence held as the violas drifted away spoke its own verdict.

Mahler 9David Allen reviews Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Mahler's Ninth Symphony.4