For the fourth year in a row, Mahler‘s 9th Symphony was on the program at the Festival. I’ve heard it many many more times as well. I wondered: what new could there possibly be to say? Then I heard Herbert Blomstedt‘s masterful reading with the Vienna Philharmonic tonight in the Great Festival House and discovered worlds in that symphony I have never heard before.
The symphony opened desolately enough, but it soon became clear Blomstedt was not satisfied with just being desolate. He deconstructed every line and then put the pieces back together emphasizing the sinister and the odd and even the grotesque. Instruments jumped out of the mass of sound, only to get abruptly cut off – or to have their flowing line completed by seemingly the wrong other instrument. All of this appeared in Mahler’s score, but Blomstedt found it (and the Philharmonic reproduced Mahler’s and Blomstedt’s vision perfectly).
He treated the music like painting by Pieter Bruegel – with attention to all the fine details, but upon close inspection a lot is actually malformed. The interior movements may have even harkened to Hieronymus Bosch – they had the skeletons dancing in hell and blurts on what might have been the bizarre musical instruments Bosch portrayed. The Philharmonic provided raw playing – not just the winds, but even the strings came across like a lush hurdy-gurdy.
The final movement started by suggesting it might resolve this craziness and rise above the din, but as the music soared it revealed itself as the Angel of Death. And then… when we may have expected death to warm over, it became instead frigid. As blood spilled upon the ice, it hardened solid. I did not time how long it took from the last note to fade until Blomstedt released the room, but it certainly felt like a full two minutes of complete silence. No one in the packed hall even breathed. We couldn’t. No air remained in the room.