Zander finds the light in Mahler 9 with Boston Phil
Mahler’s symphonies are worlds unto themselves, and his Ninth, with its aching nostalgia and weary emotional landscape, is one where light and darkness are manifested through the grandest and most delicate of gestures.
In their final concert of the season Friday night at Symphony Hall, the Boston Philharmonic offered a reading of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that was sparkling in precision and sensitive, even uplifting in interpretation. Benjamin Zander led the way.
Mahler’s last completed work has long been associated with death. Finished in 1909, the work shows a composer wrestling with his own mortality (he would die less than two years later) as well the lingering despair over the death of his four-year-old daughter, a grief from which Mahler never recovered.
A backstory like that leads many a conductor to focus on the somber side of this music. Yet Zander’s interpretation was one of surprising optimism.
The conductor has established himself as a prominent Mahlerian, and his recordings of the composer’s complete symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra are a must have for lovers of Mahler’s music. With bold, deliberate gestures, Zander sculpted the work’s phrases with glittering energy and fine detail. Even the heavy funereal moments seemed to radiate with lush ensemble blend. The result was a symphony that came off as a fond farewell to life.
The Ninth is also a work of reminiscence. The second movement’s Ländler draws upon themes from corresponding movements in the composer’s Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies. It is music full of fluttering dance figures that lilt into upbeat waltzes before ebbing to stately tempos once again.
Mahler noted that the movement should be played rather clumsily, and Zander took the composer at his word. The orchestra rendered the rough and tumble dance with a heavy, sure-footed feel. And even when the music took off at a waltz tempo, it still managed to ground itself with every pulse.
This parody of Viennese dance gave way to burlesque in the third movement, where a roiling fugue bristles with sharp chromatic statements. The Boston Philharmonic brought off each line with roaring power and crisp rhythmic flair.
But the sprawling outer movements are the soul of this symphony. In the opening Andante comodo and concluding Adagio, Mahler mined soul-searching music from the smallest of resources. The duets and trios early in the finale were marred by some untidy attacks and unsteady intonation among the Boston Philharmonic’s winds. But those problems were smoothed over when orchestra swelled to full, rich statements. Here, the strings poured out glowing sheets of sound. Concertmaster Jae Lee and principal cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer floated lovely solos in the ethereal conclusion.
The strings and horns also found the enveloping warmth in the soft themes of the first movement, and the brass answered with powerful block of harmonies when called upon. The hero of the evening was principal hornist Kevin Owen, who rendered his solo lines with golden tone.
Benjamin Zander will conduct the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in music by Ravel, Ginastera, and Strauss 2:30 p.m. May 18 at Sanders Theatre. bostonphil.org.
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