BSO's cool control fails to ignite performance of Mahler's Ninth

September 18, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is filled with land mines: a first movement that ranges from the softest chamber-music textures to sonorous declamations by full orchestra; two succeeding fast movements filled with tricky changes in mood and with humor that ranges from the wry to the grotesque; and a slow final movement whose pace must be sustained and steady without ever boring the listener.

It was with this work that David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony chose to open their season last night in Meyerhoff Hall. The orchestra had not played this piece since Sergiu Comissiona's final concert as music director nearly a decade ago, but it was clear from the very beginning that the technical challenges of the piece were well within hand of this conductor and orchestra.

This is a piece that means a great deal to the BSO's music director. He conducted it in Rochester during his years as the music director of that city's philharmonic, and he's called the Ninth his favorite among the Mahler symphonies. His love of the piece showed last night in the attention he lavished upon details -- in the the exquisite textures and the well-balanced blasts from the full orchestra. This care also evinced itself in his placing the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage so that the strands of the symphony's rich polyphony could be properly rTC illuminated. And such moments as the celestially quiet close of the first movement were conveyed with masterly control.

But lovely as the performance of that first movement often was, it failed -- for me, at least -- to cohere into a unified emotional utterance. It may have been that Zinman simply took the music a little too slowly to sustain its line, or that the players needed another performance to make this music more completely their own or that the conductor -- whose Mahler tends to the somewhat sober manner of Bernard Haitink's -- did not wear enough of his heart on his sleeve.

In any case, the rest of the performance affected me in much the same way. I appreciated the clear playing in the two quirkily difficult fast movements, but was rarely moved by their effusions of sentiment and nostalgia. And there was in the final movement -- despite some seraphic playing in the final pages -- some of the same detachment. I sometimes suspect that in some (though not all) of the post-Romantic behemoths of the repertory that Zinman gets his players to work so hard at mastering the music that they -- on the first night, anyway -- don't feel free enough to penetrate beyond the notes.

The performance will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday morning at 11. Tonight's performance will be preceded by a 7 p.m. pre-concert talk by BSO assistant conductor David Lockington.

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