Concerts & Opera

Circular Silence: Mahler 9 by LSO under Bernard Haitink



I can’t help myself listening to the Mahler 9 live recording by London Symphony Orchestra so obsessively at this moment in which I am typing these words as I could not get over the effects that the moving performance of this brilliant orchestra had on me as well as the rest of the audience who had filled up the Barbican on May 23rd. And it is not likely for a ‘getting over’ is going to happen as that was a proper artistic experience which have the capacity to transform the minds, open up new possibilities in existential levels.
Tickets sold out days before, the event was overshadowed by the unsettling incident took place in Manchester the night before. But the Barbican was still packed. Dedicated to the victims thereof, the concert has started with the words of Gareth Davies, principal flautist in LSO, stating that music speaks where words fail at the end of his brief talk. Then, having welcomed legendary Bernard Haitink with warm applauses, the audience was surrounded by an atmosphere in which we know we were going to hear the conflict between the agonistic powers and the struggle of recreation which has woven into the structure of one of his music of Mahler that he has written just before his death, Symphony No. 9.
The work received lots of interpretations that often associate this music with death and mostly seek connections with the composer’s own biography not least because although Mahler had finished writing this symphony, his death was so imminent that he was never to be present in the performance of it. Moreover, there are many signs and elements such as the deliberate use of silence, smooth lyricism at times but backed by an uncanny aura, a craving for a resolution which is never to be fulfilled (there are of course another details that can be inferred) all of which might well recall the gloomy void of death in the first instance. Of course there has been lots of other readings by many conductors of this musical text as a way of experiencing it differently. But last night the immediate reality of death had just made it hard to conceive the world as well as music in an ‘easy’ way.
Having said all that, what LSO delivered us under Haitink was of course more than what can be expected. Already feels at home in Mahler’s oeuvre and adds to it its own sonority and virtuosity characterised by perfection, the orchestra was immaculate in feeling and articulating every single nuance, beat, and even silence. Captures you from the first quiet bars to the explosive parts throughout, the first movement was an impressive beginning. Along with the striking solos of the leader Roman Simovic, the violins demonstrated their mastery in the incredibly demanding score Mahler had written for this instrument which carries most of the melodic burden. The narrative ended with delicate pizzicatos coming after a quiet period, after all the dynamics that went up and down and were perfectly held at times, the dramatic brasses and the climaxes of drums.

The character changed in the second movement unexpectedly and the orchestra entered into a different world led by waltz steps. But there was a relentlessly anxious feeling in the air. Well balanced with the nuances of Haitink, the articulation of the triplets delivered this intense emotions, followed by a lot of different music constantly speaking with each other as if in the mind of a neurotic, like the remembrances of the things past being randomly recalled to the memory among which there is even the waltz theme from Scherzo of his Symphony No. 5, but somehow a delirious version of it. This chaos was to be followed by the cosmic world of a Rondeau, belonging to the universe of Bach, but had been gracefully interrupted and ‘distorted’ by Mahler’s unique style in the third movement. After all the harsh dialogues between the instrument groups backed forcefully by the basses, a rather emotional and smooth period dominated for a while, embellished by the wonderfully lyric solos of the trumpet at times, felt like we were out of the darkness. But sooner we were to be surrender to the madness and crisis again, followed by a resolute and powerful finish.

And Finale: at the beginning, the smooth sentimental melody was presented by the heavenly timber of the strings from which the elegant sound of Simovic arose at times during the passionate developments by crescendos. Then, silence came out of nowhere, and the expressive articulation of this very moment by Haitink was remarkable, puzzling as it created a discontinuity in our concept of time, powerful enough to brought me closer to bursting of tears. Ominous sounds of the winds came through right after this and the music got gradually more furious as its forceful and prolonged notes that were striving to reach its culmination were being interrupted by agonistic silence incessantly. It was one of those periods in which the coalescence of the musicians into a body was strikingly present. And then came the high-pitched prolonged pianissimo notes, crystal clearly held by violins, followed by the incredibly touching solo of the cello, by principal Rebecca Gilliver, to become even more quiet, ultimately evolving into silence, just before which I assume they managed to sound the inaudible for a long duration.

Although John Cage was famous for introducing silence into music, he was definitely not the only composer who thought about it and who was aware of the existential importance of it for music. The philosophy of the usage of the silence by Mahler is rather different and I think it can be understood as an invitation by him to see silence and music as two powers, like life and death, which belong to the same existential level in the minds, in our languages, somehow transforming and re-creating one another in an endless circular process and this interpretation of Mahler by LSO has created multiple affects for us to be able to conceive those forces.

Ayşegül Yıldırım / London



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