Peabody's Mahler Ninth reaches toward greatness

April 09, 1994|By Kenneth Meltzer | Kenneth Meltzer,Special to The Sun

The Peabody Symphony Orchestra's promotional material for its April 8 and 9 performances of Gustav Mahler's Ninth billed the work as "The Greatest Symphony of the Twentieth Century."

While advocates for the symphonic output of Nielsen, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Sibelius (to name but a few) might express dissenting opinions, there is no question that Mahler's Ninth Symphony is one of the most searingly eloquent pieces of music ever written.

Mahler composed his Ninth with the full awareness that, given the onset of a grievous heart ailment, his time on earth was all too finite. A valedictorian atmosphere pervades Mahler's last completed symphony.

In fact Bruno Walter, the great Viennese conductor and Mahler disciple, who presided over the premiere of the work 13 months after the composer's death in May of 1911, wrote: " 'Der Abschied' (The Farewell) might have been used as the title of the Ninth Symphony."

Mahler's Ninth demands the ultimate in stamina and concentration from its performers and audience.

The 85-minute work is framed by two gargantuan, slow movements that depict the agony and ultimate resignation inherent in man's confrontation with death. The more animated but sardonic inner movements fail to provide relief and in fact serve to heighten the work's troubling mood.

This symphony has proved to be the undoing of many professional orchestras, and the decision by Hajime Teri Murai, the Peabody Symphony's music director, to program it was a bold one indeed. The fact that the performance was only a qualified success reflects more upon the elusive nature of the work than the sincere efforts of the performers.

Mr. Murai's choice of relatively brisk and steady tempos for the outer slow movements promoted continuity of line but robbed the music of much of its pathos.

The reluctance of the orchestra to play softly did not help matters. On the other hand, concertmaster Sania Derevianko's solo work was both heartfelt and technically beyond reproach.

The Landler second movement was perhaps least successful. The string tone often turned harsh, and the orchestra had difficulty following Mr. Murai's frequent tempo changes.

Conversely, the fury and kaleidoscopic effects of the Rondo-Burleske were expertly achieved, proving that the Peabody Symphony is capable of superb execution of the most difficult music.

Despite my reservations, there was enough to admire in the representation of this too-rarely performed masterpiece to encourage attendance by current and potential Mahlerites.

The final performance takes place at 8:15 this evening at Miriam A. Friedberg Hall.

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