REVIEW: WASO – Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – by David Cusworth

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Reviewed by David Cusworth
on the 16th June 2014
for the West Australian
Review of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Asher Fisch
5 Stars
MAHLER Symphony No.9

Slow, quick, quick, slow – infancy, youth, age, dotage – it’s the rhythm of life, and the inverse of symphonic form.

It’s also the order of Gustav Mahler’s genre-bending Ninth Symphony, exposed gloriously by WASO under Asher Fisch’s baton this weekend.

From the opening, vaguely oriental, irregular figure – according to some, an echo of Mahler’s debilitating heart murmur – the ensemble painted a rich, varied landscape through wide-ranging dynamics and enticing clarity in solo play.

In the serene first movement – according to Leonard Bernstein, a farewell to tenderness – strings were by turns barely there and full of resonance, with winds and brass both lyrical and menacing.

In the bucolic second – perhaps a farewell to rural innocence – the heart, the fundamental rhythm of life, is strong. Peasant dance tunes featured muscular strings, a gaudily florid horn, flute, harp, violin, clarinet and oboe, in a smorgasbord of tone.

Fisch, normally most economical in gesture, almost seemed to dance, before winding down to the lightest of cadences.

For the third, a burlesque romp through modern life, strident motifs were thrown around the band and Fisch seemed to direct them physically, but subtly: like a great cricketer, using feet and hands to best effect.

Mahler’s characteristic invocation of Totentanz – dance of death – was handled with power and grace, especially in the hauntingly simple emergent theme, often dubbed “the music from beyond”.

And here’s the paradox. Mahler embraces everything in composition, to the point that the whole is infinite: therefore both concrete and abstract.

In the tragedy and passion of the fourth movement – a long codicil to Mahler’s career, and the classical- Romantic era – life persists in the midst of death.

Here the rise and fall of dynamics, like breath itself, was enthralling: deftly directed by Fisch and delicately delivered by strings; especially the principals in violin and viola.

Successive climaxes fade and die, and the haunting theme persists. Life’s rich palette keeps on giving while infinity calls.

Attenuated at the last, the abiding theme neither ascends nor descends. It transcends all.