‘Staring into oblivion” was how Theodor Adorno described Mahler’s Ninth, his last completed symphony, given a fierce, articulate performance at the Barbican by the Vienna Philharmonic under Ádám Fischer as part of the orchestra’s current European and American tour. Written after the diagnosis of what eventually proved to be a fatal heart condition, it is almost invariably seen as a work of dissolution and renewal that both rages against the nature of mortality and clings to the beauties of this world, before literally “dying away” (the German word ersterbend is written in the score at the close) in a mood of quiet, exhausted resignation.
Fischer’s interpretation was volatile and in some ways extreme. The fragmentary phrases with which the symphony begins gave way to existential dread as well as fury as the first movement ran its course. Counterpoint, though meticulously clear, turned garish in intimation of psychological dislocation, as if the music were heading towards hysteria. There were times when the emotional pitch felt dangerously high: some of it could perhaps have been more reined-in.
The ländler-cum-scherzo that followed, with its rigid rhythms and caustic bitterness, offered little respite, while the Rondo-Burleske bristled and snarled with uneasy defiance. Fischer’s way with the closing Adagio, meanwhile, was strikingly urgent, pressing forwards where some interpreters are apt to hold back, though at the end, rather than facing oblivion, there was a sense of profound spiritual peace. The Vienna Philharmonic, meanwhile, who gave the work’s posthumous premiere in 1912, have this music in their systems, and their playing was both rich in detail and fearsome in its intensity.