In one of his more controversial statements, Stravinsky wrote that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all [beyond itself]”. Yet with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, from a composer who elsewhere barely wrote a work without a sung text, title or descriptive movement indication, we cannot but take away from the listening experience a profound sense that it is more than just notes on a page. Oh, to go back to the greenness of one’s teens when discovering music such as this for the first time, unsullied by what anyone else thought or wrote about it – did it speak to that ‘innocent ear’ of its composer’s deep sense of his own mortality? It’s too long ago to remember...

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

But in a musical world where people complain that Mahler’s symphonies are trotted out too often, there is something to be said for limiting one’s exposure to this particular work in the canon to those occasions when it’s taken on by the very best performers. Fortunately, the Philharmonia Orchestra under its principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen falls into that class. Since the days of Sinopoli and before, it has ranked as London’s Mahlerian orchestra par excellence and in this latest traversal of the Ninth – as part of a five-symphony Mahler Series across the current season – a performance emerged that spoke of experience and maturity from both players and conductor alike.

Salonen took the first movement at a proper Andante – walking pace – and the qualifying comodo (comfortable, easy-going) in the performance indication gave the perhaps ironic starting-point for a journey that seems to take us from a stuttering heartbeat to the heights of a real yearning for life before reality kicks in to smash the vision. (There we are, it’s impossible to describe this masterpiece in purely musical terms.) The many gear changes on the way sounded natural and unforced, and yet Mahler’s deliberate contrasts were effectively achieved, no more so than after the biggest climax of the movement when the trombones roar in and rip the optimism apart.

Mahler’s second movement is a mixture of rural and urban dances and Salonen really let the second violins loose in the opening Ländler with its injunction to play ‘like fiddlers’ – a rugged suggestion of coarseness without losing the musicality behind the notes. Woodwind provided the contrast of refinement, and the last pages, where Mahler allows the waltzes and Ländlers to peter out into snatches of phrases, were impressive in their icy precariousness.

The third movement may be the symphony’s shortest, but this Rondo-Burleske (the closest Mahler comes to suggesting anything extra-musical in his titles here) was a contrapuntal triumph. Salonen emphasised the almost pointillist nature of the composer’s orchestration, drawing out its latent modernism and, after the ‘windows’ of premonition that introduce us chillingly to the little turn of notes that will dominate the finale, the movement gained a fearful sense of the grotesque by its end.

And so to the Adagio finale itself, and here the Philharmonia’s richly upholstered strings came into their own, lending both depth of tone but also gutsiness to the compressed part-writing of Mahler’s great hymn-like lament. Although he was to reveal a less fatalistic outlook in the Tenth Symphony that he failed to complete, there’s an unmistakeable sense of finality in this movement in which existence slowly seems to expire like a long exhalation of breath. And one could sense the power this music had over the audience from the generous pause for individual contemplation that hung over the hall for a good while before any applause was considered appropriate. As the great Mahlerian Deryck Cooke once commented, the symphony is not so much autobiographical as the expression of feelings that belong to us all.