In the last years of his life, Mahler has tried to seek a relief from death with this music as they always say. Through the aestheticism and pessimism for life, featuring chinese old poems, he tried to reach a frame of mind free from the anxiety and sense of loss in death. In that context, it is an extention of the last movement of his 9th symphony. The words reiterated in the end of paragraphs in the 1st movement typically expresses the basic tone of this music. All after the poem invites us to the pleasures in the earth, it finally says dark is life, dark is death. It doesn't seem to be an indulgence in pessimism. But it tells us what our lives are at the end of them. I could see an openmindedness to death in these phrases. We should accept it as it is. The beautiful earth will go on even after our death.
I don't know if Mahler has been saved with this music for himself or not. In the end of the last movement, as the form the other works of Mahler often takes in, a march, in rather bright tone, starts. The contralto sings "Forever" repeatedly. This part reminds me of the very last moment of our lives when we lose our consciousness. No emotion, anxiety nor suffering from our lives any longer. It is just at the time death arrives on us. Not a salvation from death itself but acceptance of death as it is. Of course, I have never experienced such a near death moment myself but from my past history as a doctor, I have met quite a few such patients. It is an ideal acceptance of death just in my view. Mahler could be in the same idea, if not too far different, as I described above.
Bruno Walter, conducting Wien Philharmony in this recording, has stressed aestheticism of this work. Walter knew Mahler in person and wrote his short biography by himself. Knowing what Mahler was concerned about at composing this piece, Walter might give accent at the aesthetic aspect of this piece.
How difficult it is for me to describe such a music as this one, which belongs to the last thing in our lives. It is not very healthy to be indulged in only these things. However, it might be of value from time to time to come into the world Mahler has developed in this music.
If I could see that room mate, I would ask him how he listens to this music all after our long lives.