I had the privilege last Thursday to have attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, devoted solely to Mahler’s otherworldly Symphony No. 9 in D major. Any performance of any Mahler symphony is a special occasion, and this performance was one that I would remember for a long time to come.
Right at the outset of the first movement, I was aware of the richness of the Chicago strings, which possesses richness in sound, even in the delicate descending seconds of the second violins and the murmurings sextuplets of the violas. Salonen set a very good pace for the movement, and allowed the music to come into being. I got the feeling that he was gently guiding the musicians along, almost like a suggestion, rather than imposing his views upon the orchestra. The first shattering sounds of the movement, three bars before rehearsal number 6, already gave an indication of the awesome sonic resources of this ensemble. From the many solos scattered throughout the movement (indeed, throughout the symphony), it was obvious that every player in the orchestra is a master of his or her instrument.
In the second movement, Salonen, more than many other performances I had heard, really brought out the weirdness of Mahler’s sound world. The horns handled their solos at m. 13 with aplomb, and the appoggiaturas by the first horn at rehearsal 17 were perfectly placed. I loved the sound colour the contrabassoon conjured at rehearsal 18. At 14 bars before rehearsal number 23 (Wie zu Anfang), Salonen balanced the woodwinds so as to bring out the strangeness, the otherworldliness of Mahler’s sound world, almost like looking at a picture where the images are distorted. At 25 bars after rehearsal number 27 (Sehr gemächlich), the contrabassoon played its solo in a kind of mocking manner, with a great deal of irony. The conductor perfectly placed the two final chords of the movement, giving us the most incredible pianissimo.
The Rondo(Burleske) was played with all the roughness and brutality that the composer calls for. There was a real sense of forward drive throughout the movement. At rehearsal number 37, there was palpable warmth and richness emanating from the Chicago strings.
This same feeling pervaded through the beginning of the great Adagio. Here, the strings played with an incredible richness and depth of feeling. I had never heard the horn solo at m. 17 (stark hervortretend) played with such beauty of sound and security of tone. In some ways, this was, for me, the most moving moment of the entire performance. At m. 28, the contrabassoon and the celli played their unison passage with the most profound depth, as if the sound was coming from some deep recess. At m. 77 and 78, the oboe and first clarinet played the brief motif with a very touching fragility and vulnerability. There was another very beautiful moment at m. 88 (Stets sehr gehalten), where Salonen allowed the music to just hang by a thread. At m. 95, the English horn really shone with its magnificent solo playing. The conductor did not over-indulge in the climatic half-note fff descending scale at m. 122 (Wieder zurückhaltend), but it was so well placed and executed that the return of the chorale theme at m. 126 became a great moment of catharsis. From here until the end, the musicians were really taking us all on a journey into the netherworld. The audience was spellbound by the music and music-making such that there must have been a full half-minute of silence before the ovation began.
I did not think this was a hear-on-sleeve Mahler performance, à laBernstein. Yet, I do not agree with a review that the music making was cool or detached. Salonen is not an acrobatic conductor, and his conducting appears (to me) to rely on the power of suggestion rather than an imposition of the will. I believe he is the kind of musician that tends to allow the music to speak for itself, which does not equate a lack of involvement. As a composer himself, he conducted Mahler’s work with a scrupulous attention to every detail in the score. The musicians of this great orchestra completed the performance with its astoundingly high level of execution. I, for one, found the whole experience intensely moving, and have been living in the sound world of that performance many days after the experience.