Death-obsessed and superstitious, Mahler tried to outwit Fate by composing an unnumbered "song symphony" after the Eighth, but when he wrote the Ninth in 1907, he had been crushed by several devastating blows and knew he was fatally ill. It remained his last completed symphony, and was not premiered during his lifetime. The symphony is a heart-breaking mixture of holding on and letting go, of joy and beauty remembered and distorted by the anguish of loss, of doomed hope, protest, defiance, and resignation. Its extreme changes of mood and emotion are indicated by Mahler's instructions, such as: "with inmost feeling," "very tender and expressive," "like a heavy funeral march," "with fury," "with utmost force," "without expression." The third movement, called "Burleske," is marked "very stubborn"; the second, a three-part dance called "A comfortable Ländler," is subtitled "somewhat clumsy and very uncouth." Changes of tempo and dynamics are often sudden and violent; climaxes build up, collapse, rise again, scale the heights. The orchestral colors are exploited to their maximum. The last movement is a leave-taking reminiscent of the "Farewell" from the "Song of the Earth," and, like it, dies away into nothingness.
Recorded live in Vienna in January 1938, the playing is deeply committed if not entirely perfect, and if all the lines of Mahler's complex, multi-thematic counterpoint are not always clear, one must remember that if he had heard or conducted the work, he might, as always, have made emendations. The performance is historically significant: two months later, Hitler invaded Austria and Walter, Mahler's foremost champion, as well as concertmaster Arnold Rosé, who plays the violin solos, and many other orchestra members, had to flee for their lives. --Edith Eisler