My wife and I visited New York for several days, and this past Sunday, we went to Lincoln Center to hear Bernard Haitink conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It was a wonderful concert in every way, but the experience led me -- not for the first time -- to think about coughing.
Haitink, the most dignified and self-effacing of grand old maestri, led a magnificent performance. There was a special poignancy in watching this octogenarian conduct a work so suffused with end-things. The long final Adagio especially could almost have been composed with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in mind: its gentle, hymn-like threnody frequently gives way to passages of nostalgic bliss, of rage, of terror, of despair. And then, in the heart-breaking final bars, it lapses into a mysterious sort of serenity in which time seems to stand still, in which the music itself seems to cease even as it pares itself down to naked strings and haltingly gasps out its triple-pianissimo final cadence.
This is one of the most haunting endings in the entire symphonic literature, and Haitink judged it perfectly, producing an effect -- unique to this piece -- at once tragic and ecstatic. The final moments would have been purely exquisite, except for the sudden hacking cough that broke in from one of the boxes about ten seconds from the end.