Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9

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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, cond. Live recording. (EMI 5 01228 20)

"To write a symphony," said Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), "is to create a whole world." An intensely personal composer, Mahler poured into his symphonies his love of nature, his intense, conflicting emotions, and his artistic and spiritual struggles. Leaving that world must have seemed like leaving life itself; no wonder he postponed writing the final double-bar as long as possible.

In 1907, Mahler was diagnosed with an incurable heart ailment, and from then on his persistent preoccupation with death became an obsession. He tried to outwit fate by writing the "Song of the Earth"-a "symphony with voices"-after his eighth symphony, so that the ninth all composers dread would really be his tenth. Yet, his Ninth Symphony is in many ways a valediction: mournful and nostalgic, defiant and grotesque, it ends in otherworldly, regretful resignation, dying away on muted strings with a quote from his "Kindertotenlieder" (Songs on the Death of Children). …