Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 9, a meditation after a drama


Mahler in Manchester

I hope readers don’t mind me framing my thoughts about Mahler 9 in terms of conducting. It seems to make sense if for no other reason than the fact that Mahler 9 is at or near the top of many, probably most, conductors’ lists of works they want to conduct before they die.

I began this series by asking if Mahler’s music is hard to conduct. If we come back to that question with a focus on Mahler’s most perfect work, and his last finished work, perhaps we can better understand a little bit about the challenges Mahler poses for all performers.

I completely concur with Peter Davison’s recent statement that the first movement of this symphony, the Andante comodo, is the best music Mahler ever wrote. It might well be the greatest symphonic movement ever written. But is it hard to conduct?

It’s a huge, complex and texturally sophisticated movement- there are lots of tempi to be judged and lots of balances to deal with and a few tricky transitions. However, on some level, it is pretty hard (but certainly not impossible) for a conductor to do much damage to this movement. It seems that whenever he wished to, Mahler could construct movements like this with an overpowering sense of logic and forward motion, where phrase follows phrase so naturally that his huge structures sound and feel completely secure and flawless. This Andante comodo is probably the greatest of this group of movements which includes the first and last movements of the 6th Symphony, the first movement of the 8th, the last movement of the 3rd, the first movements of the 2nd and 4th and in many ways the first movement of the 5th.

This uncanny ability that Mahler has to carry the musical drama forward is not to be discounted, and certainly these are some of his greatest movements (and this one under discussion is probably his very greatest), but I’m not convinced that they are always his most profound, and they are rarely the most challenging. They are one side, albeit an essential one of his musical personality and indeed his larger message. For instance, the 1st movement of the 5th indeed seems perfectly proportioned, evolving with absolute inevitability. However, the 2nd mvt, to which it is deeply linked in many ways is almost a mirror image- disjunct where the 1st mvt is inevitable, unstable where the first  (for all that it is tragic) is quite stable in it’s alternation of funeral marches and dramatic outbursts. They are both mediations on death, but one is ritualistic, the other more raw and personal. In the 2nd movement of the 5th, everything is a struggle, but the impact is somehow greater for it- Mahler makes the music on the one hand more frustrating to listen to, more awkward to play, but also more compelling. However, there is a great demand on the conductor to navigate the music, both technically and dramatically, through the countless disruptions, stases and crises.

The first movement of the 9th is on a vast scale, and there are moments of tremendous drama and startling stillness (I always find the cello melody after fig 7 to be one of the most wonderfully strange moments in all music), but on the whole, Mahler makes sure that it all “works.” It holds together because he wants it to. It’s challenging to conduct, of course, but the amount of damage a conductor can inflict on such a strong structure is somewhat limited.

The 2nd movement is certainly technically harder to conduct, in this case because our relationship to Mahler’s notation has to change. When Mahler writes in the Germanic tradition of sonata form, he expects us to read everything very literally (with the notable exception of the 1st mvt of the 5th). When he writes dance movements, particularly Landlers, one has to be more sensitive to all the unwritten traditions and nuances associated with the dances in question. I always find it a little soul destroying to hear the first five notes of this movement played in strict tempo and mathematical proportion- it’s not only completely out of character with the dance, it also sends a pretty clear signal that the rest of the movement is going to be a lead-shoed and un-idiomatic affair. Eliciting the right kind of nuanced, sophisticated and stylistic playing takes serious chops, as anyone who has ever seen Carlos Kleiber or Georges Pretre conduct Strauss waltzes will know.

Also, at this point, it is important to remind readers that this is a work Mahler never conducted. Although even in its initial form it is simply one of the most astounding feats of orchestral imagination ever put on paper, we should remember that Mahler always, always, always revised his scores after performing them. In addition to clarifying textures, Mahler always took pains to clarify his intentions- there are always more tempo modifications and explanation of nuances in later versions. Compare the score of the 9th with those of the 7th or 6th and you can see how much more sparsely it is marked (an interesting comparison is also between Totenfeier and the 1st mvt of the final version of the 2nd Symphony).

This brings me to the subject of the widespread confusion and misconceptions about objective versus subjective Mahler interpretation.

Again and again I’ve read reviews of Mahler performances in which a conductor who more or less stuck to one main tempo per movement was described as “objective” and one who changed tempi frequently as “subjective.” Such a response might well be apt in the music of Beethoven, who rarely, rarely indicates variations of tempi within a movement (other than between, say, a slow introduction and allegro). Many of the rubati and changes of tempo for different thematic groups practiced by conductors of the Furtwangler era can fairly be described as subjective in the sense that the performer has made a personal and subjective choice to do them based not on specific instructions but on their own instincts and intellectual response to the score.

However, in Mahler, it is more often than not the conductors who are changing tempos all the time who are being “objective” in the sense of sticking more accurately to the score’s expressly stated, rather than implied, intentions. I remember after conducting my first Mahler 1 that our veteran harpist came up to me at the reception and said “I must have done that piece 15 times, but I never realized how many tempo changes there were.” Throughout the piece, I had tried very hard to respond to every tempo indication in the score but to add none.  It may have been wild, but my approach was most definitely as objective as I could make it.

Additionally, as Mahler revised his scores, he tended to get more and more specific about tempo modifications, especially after early performances. Again, Totenfeir makes a fascinating comparison with  the finished 1st mvt of the 2nd Symphony. There is a new recording of Totenfeier out in which the conductor does none of the tempo changes familiar to us from the later version of the piece- the effect is quite odd. I suppose, however, in that case, he is being objective, if pedantically so. There are exceptions, but generally, the more Mahler revised a piece, the lighter the orchestration became and the denser the instructions to the performer regarding tempi, phrasing and articulation.

So, what in Beethoven might be described as rigid adherence to the score (no tempo changes) in Mahler is often the opposite. However, many conductors known for their rigor and objectivity in Beethoven can’t seem to shake off this association of flexibility with decadence and subjectivity. Some may disapprove of Mahler’s early 20th c. performance attitudes to his own music, some no doubt are a little un-nerved by the technical challenges of manipulating time as Mahler instructs, while others simply are lacking the technique to do what Mahler asks. That’s not to say there aren’t fine performances of Mahler with quite homogenized tempi- its’ simply a matter of pointing out that those homgenized tempi are not objectively arrived at.

However, the final triptych of Das Lied, the 9th and 10th begs the question- knowing what we know about how Mahler enriched his performance instructions after premiering his other symphonies, what might he have changed, added or amended in these pieces? In this case, are we to be emboldened to be a bit more subjective and trust our instinct that he would surely have freed things up?

All the more reason for the conductor in this movement not to be content just to hack through what is on the page without thinking carefully about the stylistic riddles hidden in the notes. It’s certainly far harder to conduct that the Andante comodo. The conductor can kill this movement off in the first 2 bars.

It also goes without saying that just as the 2nd movement of the 9th is more technically demanding for the conductor, it is also in many ways more demanding for the listener. Of course, the 1st movement, 30 minutes long, demands a lot of concentration from the listener, but Mahler makes sure to make that listening experience as seamlessly persuasive as possible- in a cinematic sense, it is perfectly paced. The 2nd movement, which is more ironic, starts to upset our expectations, and so, minute by minute, it demands far more from the audience.

The 3rd mvt, the Rondo- Burleske takes this progression far farther. It’s most obvious technical forerunner is the 2nd movement of the 5th Symphony in the sense that it is a study in discontinuity. Seldom does any idea last more than 2 very quick bars without a hesitation or an interruption. Things are constantly starting and stopping, the texture quickly becomes incredibly dense, and the longer the music goes on, the more unstable everything feels. When the first four bar phrase in the movement is a quote from the Merry Widow, you know you have entered a dangerous musical world.

If showing rhythmic nuance takes far more technical skill than simply guiding an inexorably unfolding dram for a conductor, dealing with discontinuity and disruption is even more challenging. Mahler makes things even more difficult by starting almost all of the musical gestures on off beats- as anyone who has conducted the first movement of Beethoven 5 can tell you, getting a whole section to come in together in a fast tempo off the beat takes skills.

It’s important to remember that all this difficulty is there on purpose, as it always is in Mahler, going right back to the opening of the 1st Symphony, which is always so hard to tune. Too many critics and conductors assume that when Mahler’s music becomes demanding or difficult for the listener that Mahler is somehow getting it wrong. Geniuses essentially don’t get it wrong, listeners and performers do.

Mahler’s “difficult” movements, like the Scherzo of the 5th, the Finale of the 7th, Part II of the 8th and the Rondo.Buleske are among his most important and completely original creations. Not all music is meant to be pleasing- if the examples I cited earlier of movement of perfectly paced drama (such as the Andante comodo) carry the listener forward like with a cinematic sweep of narrative filmmaker like a Spielberg (cue screams of outrage from fellow Mahlerians here)  or Coppola on top form, other movements, like Finale of the 7th and the Rondo.Burleske are built around creating a sense of unease. Think Fellini, think Bergman.

The final Adagio poses the most simple and profound challenges for a conductor not only in this symphony, but possibly in his entire output.

On the most basic, nuts and bolts level, it is probably the simplest thing to conduct he ever wrote. It’s all in 8 or 4, there’s not a lot of fussing with tempi, all the transitions are straightforward and ensemble is never a problem.

And yet, how often have I experienced performances in which the conductor hasn’t quite been up to the job?

Of course, the technical intricacies of the Rondo.Burleske seem to demand a virtuoso conducting technique to keep the orchestra together, but a click track could probably do the job just as well in the most difficult sections. The Adagio, on the other hand, doesn’t need time beating, or cues- it needs humanity, it needs soul, it needs passion.

Let’s face it, it needs a lot of passion. Those long, ecstatic slow fortissimo passages can simply run out of gas if even a great orchestra is left to its own devices. It takes real artistry to keep the intensity building and building- you can simply give it your all on every beat, sweat like a pig and hope for the best. On the other hand, you can’t just stand there with aristocratic poise and trust the players to rip their souls out. You have to know, on the most minute level, when you have to give a little more gas to maintain the same speed when the car is driving uphill, and when to let up as you crest a hill. At some point, you have to give the last you have, but when?

If the Andante comodo is Mahler’s most perfect music, this is his most transformative, but it is also far less forgiving. It can collapse in performance. While the Andante is always going somewhere, the Adagio is almost a case studio of nearly, but not quite, static states of mind. Within this double variation form, you have one theme which is always a passionate outpouring of feeling, the other is always calm to the point of stillness. It is a meditation rather than a drama, but something profoundly dramatic happens in the course of the meditation. Can one keep the tension building in the ecstatic hymn, or does the car start to slow as the hill becomes steeper? In the empty abyss of the 2nd theme, can one give just enough coherence to what is really nothing more than smoke and shadow?

And, funnily enough, for me this movement, one of the greatest and beautiful things any human being ever created, ultimately succeeds or fails on the performers ability to do something as simple as to be big enough for Mahler’s imagination- can you keep finding another gear, more sound, more energy, more intensity, or at some point does the orchestra, however perfectly in tune, committed and together, sound like mere mortals?


What do you think? Have any particular Mahler 9 Adagios shaken you to your core or left you cold? Would you rather just hear Mahler’s music in a nice steady groove regardless of what he wrote? Am I going to Hell for comparing Mahler to Spielberg? Please leave a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

2 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 9, a meditation after a drama”

  1. Thomas Li

    I think Mahler 9 will require conductor and the Orchestra players not only the technical side, but also a sense of shaping individual movements.

    The Halle performance was half and half for me. I felt the 1st movement lack a sense of momentum at the beginning and it was a a bit safe. The second movement lacked the roughness of Landler. Though it was challenging because the Orchestra needs to get away from the mood of the first movement and get into the feeling of a peasant dance.

    From there on, everything turned better. I guess the Halle must have spent a lot of time in the 3rd movement. It created the sense of madness, wildness etc. and wasn’t frightened by playing the off beat notes in the 2/2 time signature. The 4th movement was probably the best as the strings certainly built the sense of intensity. I simply couldn’t stop myself thinking Bernstein’s comment that the ending was Mahler’s farewell to the world. Though I think it is more like ‘it is nearly there but not quite’. The last movement of the 10th symphony is probably the end but with hope and warmth.

  2. Michael Hansen

    The first movement of the Giulini/CSO Mahler 9 is quite special…the music sweeps you up and doesn’t let you go until the final note–without feeling at all rushed. So often the Andante Comodo sounds disjointed to me…but not under Giulini.

    Barbirolli’s performance of the Andante has a greater amount of forward motion but it is all framed well in context.

    As far as the Adagio…the Bernstein/Berlin performance from 1979 left me in tears after I heard it for the first time. There is the obvious issue of the missing trombones in that recording, but if it’s an emotional experience you want then look no further. I also think very highly of the 2008 Rattle/Berlin account.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *