Adelaide turned on the perfect rain-soaked night to experience the exquisite melancholy of Mahler’s ninth and final symphony. The Festival Centre was filled to capacity on Saturday night with those keen to witness the momentous occasion of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s completion of the Mahler Symphony Cycle.
This epic eight-year journey through each of Mahler’s major compositions was guided by Arvo Volmer, chief conductor and music director of the ASO. The timing of its conclusion could not be more perfect with Volmer, acclaimed for his interpretation of Mahler, due to step down from his role with the ASO at the end of the year. This performance of Mahler’s “farewell” piece is an apt way to bid adieu to a maestro who has been instrumental in bringing the ASO to world-class standard.
As a conductor, Volmer’s love of Mahler was impossible to ignore. He embodied the music and watching the relationship between his idiosyncratic movements and the sound it inspired was mesmerizing. Mahler was also a conductor and renowned for his energetic and distinctive style, so this parallel adds surprising poignancy to the performance.
This was the last symphonic work Mahler completed and tragically he was never to hear it performed. Mahler had been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and died at the age of 47, the year prior to the premiere of this symphony in 1912. The ninth symphony was composed at a particularly distraught time in Mahler’s life. He knew he was suffering from a heart condition and two years earlier his eldest daughter had died from scarlet fever and diphtheria. Mahler took to his composing hut in the Dolomite Mountains of South Tyrol to work on his final symphonies, but only completed the ninth before his premature death.
As the first movement opened I was initially struck by the complexity of the piece. This symphony beautifully illustrates Mahler’s straddling of the end of the Romantic period and onset of the Modern, as he managed to masterfully combine elements of both throughout the four movements. There are Romantic motifs such as a recurrent horn call contrasted with surprisingly Modern sections in which loud and soft passages are played simultaneously by different sections of the orchestra. It is a dynamic symphony, with times at which solo instruments can be heard against a dense background of strings and woodwind, followed by sections in which the every part of the orchestra seems to be playing different strands of music in complicated harmonies.
Mahler’s philosophy – “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” – is beautifully exemplified by this work. It does seem to hold everything. From heart-pounding climaxes to quiet passages in which even the percussionist with the triangle holds the limelight, this was a magnificent performance that kept me absorbed for the entire 80 minutes.
Overall, the sentiment of this symphony is one of melancholy. Mahler is saying farewell but ultimately refuses to dwell on bitterness. Instead, he moves through dread and resentment to acceptance, ending the fourth movement with a gentle conclusion that seems to imply recognition of the inevitability of death.
The ASO and Volmer have achieved something exceptional in their completion of Mahler’s Symphony Cycle and Adelaide should feel proud to call this superlative orchestra their own.
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