Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony stands, monumentally, as the last symphony the composer finished before his death in 1911. There’s no denying that death plays a large role in the symphony; that Mahler himself would die before the piece received its premiere has perhaps added to the work's deathly connotations. Indeed, Thursday’s concert with Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic had been titled “Mahler’s Musical Goodbye”. But where the title of the concert at least showed a willingness to present a point of view, Petrenko’s performance was often frustratingly vague and directionless, only occasionally aware of where it was heading.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

The sonic landscape that opens Mahler’s Ninth is peculiarly striking. Out of seemingly nowhere come muted horns and cellos, exchanging rhythmic motifs that may or may not resemble heartbeats, before being joined by harp and quietly murmuring violas. Petrenko went for a straightforward approach, never wallowing in the admittedly very beautiful sonorities, but instead heading straight into the violin melody. However, once the orchestra was out of the relative tranquillity of this opening, I couldn’t quite figure out where things were headed, as instrumental lines were crashing uncomfortably into one another in a strange sort of directionless anguish. The first movement came across as strangely disjointed. Climaxes with varying degrees of desperation came and went, but they rarely seemed to have anything in common with one another. There were some very lovely sounds, but the reason for them being there was never clarified.

Throughout his tenure in Oslo, Petrenko has shown himself as very much a sonically-minded conductor – capable of coaxing absolutely exquisite sonorities from the orchestra – but musical form has often seemed to elude him. The dance variations of the second movement appeared confused about what they wanted to be and where they wanted to go. The opening was more chaotic than anything, but the orchestra settled eventually. As the opening Ländler transformed into an ever-more dizzying waltz, it felt like everyone was holding back. The Strauss waltzes parodied by Mahler could easily have been even more grotesquely sinister.

Petrenko seemed more at home in the third movement Rondo-Burleske, relentlessly whipping the orchestra forward, bringing a manic energy throughout. In his hands, the music sounded more like Shostakovich than it did Mahler, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. After a beautifully shaped slow middle section, it became clear, however, that the opening of the movement had promised more than Petrenko and the orchestra could hold. Unable to turn up the intensity even further, what was supposed to be an even wilder ending consequently ended up sounding tame.

The fourth and final movement was beautifully played, but it sounded nowhere near as gut-wrenching as Petrenko’s conducting would make it seem. As it progressed, however, Petrenko seemed to grow more comfortable with the music, and the last half included some of the most coherent playing of the whole evening. The movement can easily be heard as Mahler’s titular “musical farewell”, with a gorgeous string orchestra opening, gradually rising higher and higher until it quite literally dissolves into thin air some twenty minutes later. Finally, there was a sense of knowing where the music was headed, and despite suspect intonation in the many sudden transitions, the last ten minutes or so were pure, Mahlerian magic.

With this performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, there seemed to be a thought that pure sonic beauty – where it wasn’t obscured by mysterious tuning – would somehow be enough. While part of Mahler's appeal is the sheer beauty of the orchestration, there is much more to be found in the architecture of the piece itself. That, however, was mostly left untouched.