Gustav Mahler‘s farewell to life: his last completed work, the ninth symphony, filled him with superstitious dread. His symphonic idiom drew from Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, who had not exceeded nine symphonies (using the official numberings – Schubert’s supposedly-lost symphony that got a number seems to have actually been his unfinished #8 and not an entirely different one, and Bruckner wrote two, #0 and #00, which he excluded from his own numbering). The symphony received its premiere in 1912, one year after Mahler’s death.
There are a number of ways to approach this symphony. In taking perhaps the most anguished possible interpretation at Salzburg’s Great Festival House this morning, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic may have unleashed the best – and most devastating – performance I have heard of the work. This was a heart-wrenching version, the instruments growling and hissing and mocking the soul. Haitink coaxed virtuoso playing from each individual musician, representations of awaiting death (but also an entirely new harmonic language Mahler had developed, a logical if radical continuation of his unique style which went on to influence Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School). Even when the middle movements danced, this was not a dance with death so much as a dance with death hovering in the corner of the room, darkening the dancers with its monstrous shadow.
This interpreation highlighted an expansive adagio finale as the cousin of the adagio finale of Mahler’s third symphony. But whereas the third ends triumphant, the ninth sinks into despair, fading to nil.
The Philharmonic’s principal clarinet died suddenly of a heart attack a few days ago, and one wonders if his departure hung over the orchestra. The audience breathed deeply and stood. We may be so used to this orchestra that we expect the most from them, and so standing ovations don’t come often. But sometimes even the great Philharmoniker exceeds itself as it did this morning.