Mahler's Symphony no. 9 is a divisive work. The fact that it is the last completed symphony of a composer in declining health has led to preoccupations with death. For some, it shows Mahler heroically fighting the inevitable. For others, it is the composer's warm goodbye. For many, death does not factor, the work seen rather an affirmation of life. The Israel Philharmonic's take on the work was initially hard to grasp. That was before we reached a glowing rendition of the Adagio, which was a hymn to life and a final farewell rolled into one.

Zubin Mehta © Wilfried Hösl
Zubin Mehta
© Wilfried Hösl

This was the next instalment of La Scala's International Orchestra's Festival, which has treated Milanese music lovers to some of the world's most highly acclaimed orchestras. A web of ties between tonight's visitors and the opera house made this a performance of especial symbolic significance. Founded in 1936, the orchestra's inaugural concert was directed by La Scala doyen Arturo Toscanini. Claudio Abbado, another house luminary, directed them in the late 1960s, prompting a string of performances at La Scala over the subsequent years. The orchestra's current director is Zubin Mehta, who is somewhat of a god at an opera house where he has conducted regularly for over 50 years. 

Mehta came on stage with a walking stick in hand, taking his place on a stool positioned on the podium. When he launched the first movement. there was sweetness in the orchestra's rocking figure and an understated vitality to the sound. Leaning toward the players with the warmth and encouragement of a grandfather figure, Mehta cultivates a tender sound. It was when the momentum starts to ratchet that we were left wanting. The orchestra didn't gush as much as we would have liked in the erupting brassy spangles of the development section, and none of its ranks looked close to breaking a sweat. There was little drama for the emergent figure that Bernstein believed to represent Mahler's faltering heart. 

Whilst the outer movements provide plenty of opportunity for introspection, the inner movements call for greater abandon. Whatever your take on the work, the visceral energy of this section must be engaged with if the music is to say anything at all. There was enjoyment in the rustic, jocular opening of the Ländler, with Mehta tickling out the little notes atop traipsing lower strings. But when the the dance whips into wild, sarcastic revolutions, playing was flat. It was too cozy a rendition for the violent counterpoint in the Rondo-Burleske that follows. Bristling orchestration gifts players with fragmented melodies in the strings, with splashes on crashing percussion and a brass and bass drum combination that rises menacingly from the depths. Players didn't seem to relish these details. More gusto might have brought the movement to life.

Great playing turned the performance around in the final movement, and for the first time we were utterly transfixed. This is one Mahler's greatest slow movements, stretching out in over 20 minutes (by most accounts) of gently burning ardour. It was perfect for the orchestra's proportions, who never squeezed the passion, but rather allowed the music to unpack naturally. Warmth in opening violins never bordered on over-indulgence, and the lead violinist's solo was arresting for its unaffected beauty. Horns melted through the butter without a hint of vanity. There was a crepuscular quality to the sparser, elegiac middle section. The long pianissimo ending (ersterbend) was utterly still. One moment, the sound was there. The next, with a tilt of Mehta's outstretched hands, it was gone. 

Schoenberg regarded Mahler's Ninth to be a strange work: "The author hardly speaks as an individual any longer," he said. Similarly, there was little indivuality in the orchestra's voice. At times, we wanted more. But it gave their closing statement unequivocal depth. An objective statement of beauty, to appropriate Schoenberg's description of Mahler's Ninth.