Thinking about Mahler’s ninth

As I’ve said before in multiple places here, I have lots of anticipation and ideas and thoughts about Mahler’s ninth that may or may not be accurate, but I have certainly built it up a lot in my head, and I am realizing that it may all be a bit overblown. It doesn’t much matter, because that whole dream image of how I planned to enjoy Mahler’s pinnacle work for the first time is coming to an end much earlier than I’d expected. 
I read this article that describes Mahler’s ninth as a great symphony. I then sort of ran with the idea, and the general sentiment that it is the pinnacle of not only his oeuvre, but also of art and music in general. The simple suggestion of a cozy fire triggered images of a sofa in a cabin in the mountains of my home state on a cold evening in front of a cracking fire and a soft blanket with my dog, lying back and not listening to but experiencing Mahler’s ninth for the first time in a life-changing evening with good headphones. I’ve listened to multiple recordings of all his other symphonies at least once, aside from this one, but that dream presents some problems. 
I live 9,000 miles away from those mountains, and so does my dog, and I would somehow

need to procure a log cabin in those mountains, etc. I was willing to wait another year or two for that to happen, give myself time to digest his first eight symphonies, as well as Das Lied von der Erde, Das Klagende Lied, and all the rest before embarking upon this critical and final (completed) piece of his life’s work.

As it turns out, this dream is conflicting with another one I recently decided on: to hear all of Mahler’s symphonies live. I (almost) had a chance to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Philadelphia orchestra here in Taipei perform Mahler’s first, but all tickets cheaper than about $150 were sold out and I couldn’t justify it. 
It was about a year ago that this whole fascination/confusion with Mahler started, coming off a few other very large-scale works, like Messaien’s Turangalîla and Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, that I got tickets to hear a local, very young (but not student) orchestra perform Mahler’s fifth. So that one is checked off the list. And it snowballed from there.
So here’s the rub: while I want to be on that sofa in front of a fire in that cabin with my dog 9,000 miles away, I also don’t want to pass up an opportunity to hear the piece live. It’s not the Berlin Philharmonic or anything, nor is it Mahler’s 8th, requiring hundreds of performers and an extended stage, etc. That one is a true rarity. Even still, I will not miss the Mahler’s 9th showing up in my town next month. It would be silly to pass up such a performance as a season opener, so I bought a ticket (and a pretty good one, too). 
Which leads us to another predicament: do I listen to it first and brush up on the piece and know what to listen for? If so, which recording do I choose as a reasonable, middle-of-the-road, respectable first listen? I hear Abbado’s live performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a good one, and I happen to have it. I quite like the others they did. 
The argument for a few pre-live listenings is that I may benefit from some additional familiarity with the piece. I love and adore Mahler’s second, but it still took a few solid listenings to really “get” the piece, to understand it and warm up to it, especially on the enormous scale it’s presented as. 
On the one hand, I want to enjoy this upcoming live performance as much as possible, but on the other, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of letting a first listen to the piece be a live one. 
Also, if you haven’t noticed, I tend to overthink and over-analyze things. 
I have noticed that as I progress through the Mahler symphonies in a not-so-chronological order, some do become easier to grasp at first (or second or third) listen, but then again, this could be due simply to the nature of the pieces themselves. The fifth was my first, and it was puzzling to begin with. The second was next, and it was challenging more in its breadth and scope than its content, but I did quickly come to love it, couldn’t stop listening to it for a few weeks. I listened to about 14 or 15 different recordings of it. Next was the first, and it was the most straightforward of them all to date. The fourth movement was still a bit big, but the piece overall was not a challenge. 
The most recent undertaking was the sixth, which was indeed a challenge, for multiple reasons. It is also quite a large piece, and while adhering in many respects to the traditional structure of a symphony, is a hypnotic, dreamlike (well, nightmarishly) beautiful yet painful work of expression. After spending weeks preparing that one, I decided that I will only do a Mahler piece every four months or so, and the rest in chronological order: 3, 4, 7, 8, 9. They are in my calendars with alarms, but I did neglect to include Das Lied von der Erde, which should go after 8 and before 9, so that will have to be fixed. 
In any case, I’ve got one Mahler symphony live off my list, and two more will get checked off in the next six weeks or so (number four performed by a youth orchestra, even the idea of which I find rather impressive), so that’s exciting. 
I suspect the 7th and 8th to be the tough ones to find (and Das Lied, I suppose, should be counted with the symphonies by some purists, but… It hasn’t a number; I dunno. I suspect it is also a rarity to run across a performance of). The third, also, with its extraordinary length, (exceeded in length [not including symphonies that haven’t been performed (looking at you, Sorabji)] only by Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ symphony, which we may at some point get to), is I suppose a less commonly-programmed work, but still not rare, maybe. 
In any case, after asking around and contemplating the gravity of the situation, I have decided I’ll probably give it a listen or two before the big night on September 20th. 
In an effort to work up to that (it seems at least in my head like it will help), I am working to some extent or other on understanding and digesting the symphonies leading up to the ninth. This is somewhat convenient, coming off my unprofessional and quite long but still seemingly insufficient-feeling analysis of the sixth, which leads naturally to the seventh and eighth. I have given the seventh many listens lately, and it, like a good wine, is beginning to open up to me. I’m ‘getting’ it more and more. The problem with the eighth is that I need to spend more time reading the text, and also, it’s just long. 
As mentioned earlier, I have decided to address the remaining five(-ish) symphonies in chronological order, one every three or four months or so, putting 7-9 starting about year from now and stretching into 2016, without even taking Das Lied into consideration, so it’ll be a while, but I will at least have the symphonies from beginning to end under my belt and complete the sort of storyline of his compositions. 
As for now, I am looking forward to enjoying a performance of Mahler’s lightest, daintiest, quite happy symphony, the fourth, next week, kind of the epilogue to the third. I won’t actually get around to writing it up until at least the end of the year if not early next year, but it is another check off my list of Mahler symphonies I need to see live. Then the ninth next month. 

Hooray for live (real) music. I wonder which one will be next (number 2 I hope!)

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