There’s a telling, if amusing, photograph dated 1907 of Gustav Mahler posing in light snow against the alpine backdrop of the Dolomites, his right hand on his hip, legs crossed at the knee and left hand propped on a walking stick. Wearing knickerbockers, waistcoat, jacket and bowtie, he epitomizes a gentrified intellectual taking the air to promote good health and clarity of mind. But to the photographer, his expression says something like, “Oh, go ahead, if you really must…”: as if, in truth, he had better ways to spend his time.

Sir Simon Rattle © Oliver Helbig
Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

Indeed he had, for the Ninth Symphony Mahler composed in Toblach just two years later was to be his last completed work. He crafted it furiously throughout the summer of 1909, confessing to his friend and conductor Bruno Walter that what he had completed would likely be “utterly incomprehensible and illegible to anyone else”. That said, the Ninth is a work of ambiguous character that has kept music historians abuzz with interpretations for more than a century. Often considered a premonition of Mahler’s impending death in 1911, a year before the work was ever performed, the symphony is seen by another camp as a vibrant piece that affirms a love of life and Nature, for whom death is simply an integral part of a cycle. 

Here at the Tonhalle Maag, Sir Simon Rattle tackled the sublime work with the London Symphony Orchestra, whose Music Director he has been since September 2017. The Maag’s stellar acoustics are inclined to make a big work even more monumental, and the Mahler/Rattle/LSO promise drew a full house. Once the orchestra was seated, the concertmaster was singled out for his own entrance and given applause, a tradition we don’t know in Zurich. As Sir Simon entered, his signature mop of white hair was visible above the string players’ heads well before he was. 

Mahler’s Ninth is structured in the classical four movements, without the intervention of choir or soloists. But moving between the worlds of darkness and the sinister, to the almost paradisiacal visions of earth and peace and by using every possible combination of polyphonic musical lines, there is no paucity of voices. 

Alban Berg was to call the symphony’s first movement the finest music Mahler ever wrote, its extreme polyphony of the Andante comodo being “a vision of the hereafter”. But that movement has also been cited as an evolution of opposites, and the LSO underscored that vigorously; they opened up the score’s two-note “farewell” motif no fewer than seven times, and nicely weighted the heavy funeral march which Mahler called a “a solemn procession”. The timpani, flutes and woodwinds figured prominently, even perhaps a tad overbearingly for the size of the hall, while the harps returned us to the more celestial. Rattle’s left hand often shook as if it were a live electrical charge, and he readily used his mouth, lips and jaw to sign directions.

The second movement starts out as a jovial one, in no small part because it features familiar Ländler waltzes typical of the south German-Austrian-Bohemian regions. The LSO was a little stiff and heavy on what is an inherently leisurely genre, and the horns had some trouble at the start, but that said, the orchestra confidently mastered the movement’s many tempi changes and delighted with rousing woodwind soli.

The great conundrum of the third movement was nothing short of a universe of sounds, and it was understandable that Rattle came down from the podium briefly beforehand to drink a glass of water. It’s here in the Rondo-Burleske that the polyphony intensifies markedly, spinning the music head-over-heels into what at times can only be called grotesque. In Zurich, too, a veritable torrent descended in spiralling motion before the harp brought us back to regular breathing. In sum, the Rondo-Burleske was the culmination of all the instruments spilling themes one over the other, imitating, paraphrasing, going back to retrieve and reinstating with a variation, again and again. 

Finally, the apotheosis of the last movement, the Adagio, set another mood entirely. Being the final farewell, it draws out what one critic calls “the arsenal of grief”, the music verging on the acutely painful until it dissipates very slowly into silence. By the very end, Mahler has withdrawn from the burlesque and brought us fully into the area of pure calm and perpetual, transcendental light. Just as importantly, with his Ninth Symphony, he bridged two musical eras: the one, rooted in the 19th century, the other that stands tall as an uncompromising pioneer of the modern. As such, what Rattle and the LSO gave us in Zurich was a generous gift.