Tomorrow Deutsche Grammophon will release their new recording of Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Recording took place in Los Angeles in the Walt Disney Concert Hall during the 2012 Mahler project, during which, over the course of three weeks, Dudamel conducted a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies (which did not include a performing version of all five movements of the tenth symphony) with his two orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Readers may recall that Dudamel conducted Mahler’s first symphony in D minor for his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut on October 8, 2009; and I was fortunate enough to experience a concert performance when they visited San Francisco in May of 2010.
I should begin with the disclaimer that I bring a lot of baggage with me whenever I listen to Mahler. Since I am based in San Francisco, I have been exposed to the Mahler canon in great abundance by way of the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). Those activities led to the seventeen-CD Mahler Project box set, as well as the two-DVD set Mahler: Origins and Legacy in the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score project. However, my exposure to Mahler began shortly after I graduated from high school; and my interest in both performances and recordings of his music never waned.
As far as Dudamel’s approach to Mahler is concerned, my initial reaction to his debut performance was that it had a generous share of eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. However, if these departures from convention were maddening, there seemed to be a method behind them; and my belief in that method was reinforced when I heard the performance in San Francisco.
Where this new recording of the ninth is concerned, however, I do not find myself as readily convinced. While the Origins and Legacy video makes a feasible claim for a narrative thread that runs through the entire canon, the first and ninth symphonies are separated by a wide gulf of plot development (if I may continue that metaphor). The first has all the hyper-expressive trappings of the Romantic movement, ending in a blaze of glory for some unidentified hero figure. The ninth, on the other hand, is enshrouded by dark thoughts of death, beginning with a rhythmic pattern intended to mimic Mahler’s own heart murmur. Taken as a whole, the symphony is Janus-faced, looking back on the many life experiences that shaped Mahler’s musical rhetoric while also looking forward with the realization that the path will not go much further.
The symphony thus captures an immediate present at which past and future meet, and Mahler captures that immediacy with a scrupulously conceived sense of tension. If, in the preceding symphonies, climax was embodied through major bursts of energy, the ninth is all about the accumulation of tension to a point that the listener is kept uncertain as to both how the tension will be released and when that release will occur. One experiences this shortly after the first theme is introduced in the first movement; and it does not take long to realize that similar experiences recur throughout the entire symphony, all the way to the point when one is never quite certain just how the final movement will resolve. (I might suggest that this is Mahler’s own uncertainty as to how and when death will finally come.)
It is this transition from “energy management” to “tension management” that distinguishes the ninth. However, taking that proposition as a premise can then explain why Dudamel’s approach to the symphony is less than satisfying. He still has a method for managing the extended temporal scale of the symphony; but it is a method of “energy management.” This means that he misses out on the critical rhetorical motivation for the entire symphony; and this is evident at the beginning of the first movement, when that first blood-curdling expression of that tension never really emerges from his interpretation.
At the risk of moralizing, I would like to hypothesize an explanation for this weakness, drawing upon my own experiences in San Francisco. MTT’s Mahler project basically got into the works with the beginning of his tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in the fall of 1995. The Mahler Project box set was released in October of 2011. Bearing in mind that most of the actual recordings were made well before the CDs were released, that still makes for well over a decade of effort behind the project. By way of comparison, the idea of preparing a Mahler cycle performance over the course of three weeks is either folly, arrogance, or just plain chutzpah. Dudamel is young enough that he does not have to be in a hurry to make his mark on the Mahler canon. If he told the press that he “waited a long time to conduct this symphony,” I would like to humbly submit that he has not yet waited long enough.