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7.5.05

MTT in Mahler's 9th

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 9, Michael Tilson Thomas / SFSO
Following his release of the 2nd symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas's Mahler cycle continues to take shape with this 9th on the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's own label. The predecessor did not disappoint and neither does this issue.

Just as the last time I reviewed a new MTT Mahler release, I took the time to listen to as many other performances of Mahler's last (for all practical purposes) symphony as I have in my collection. An acquaintance even lent me Ozawa's Sony recording, available only in Japan. In addition to these "canned" performances, I heard it with the NSO on April 21 and will again this week with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Too much of a good thing? Fortunately not. Every time I hear the 9th, I find something new, and even after listening to it an estimated 35 times over the last three or four weeks, I'm far from being sick of it.

The verdict on the new release, meanwhile, is strikingly similar to that on the 2nd. In short, we have here an excellent performance, with impeccable playing; a great new installment in the MTT-SFSO cycle, if not necessarily an outright first choice. The latter point isn't saying much, of course, because there is really no "clear first choice" in any Mahler symphony. Even where I have a strong favorite, others will swear by a different interpretation. Too much in Mahler depends on character and mood as well as listener preference. If polish is among those, MTT is already off to a good start. From the first movement to the last, it is also a very relaxed performance, well mannered and broad. Of the versions I compared, only Riccardo Chailly (Decca) could match the expansive nature. Of the ones I know, only Levine (Oehms) beats Tilson Thomas, thanks to a slow-motion finale. While I generally don't believe in the usefulness of tables comparing timings (the essence of a performance is not revealed in objective time, but subjective time and through character) I'll include one here anyway, for interest's sake:

Conductor1234Total
Abbado III25:5214:5612:2125:5679:05
Boulez29:1716:0312:3821:2579:23
Chailly30:3916:5514:0128:2489:49
Levine29:1316:5914:5132:2793:30
Sinopoli28:0915:1213:1625:5482:31
MTT30:2217:0413:5527:5088:22

MTT clearly takes his time, and his broad first movement unfolds in carefully paced glory. The brass notes are tame and almost sound like the plucked double basses in the opening, a character this recording has in common with most of its rivals, except Sinopoli (DG), where the Philharmonia's aggressive brass sound like falling trees. Sinopoli, whose first movement I find more riveting than the competitors, also gives it a bit more forward momentum, easily as much, at any rate, as the fastest of the bunch, Abbado (DG). MTT's first movement—indeed, the entire symphony—is close in spirit to Chailly, although subtler at times. With a magnificent second and third movement, you get all the polish of the San Francisco Symphony and a naturalness that has every musical element fall into place. As in the second symphony, the feel is elastic and lithe rather than driven.

Again, the true jewel of the performance is the finale. It is the quintessence of slow burn, something that Klemperer's live performances have been said to exemplify. The feelings of lying on ones back in the Austrian mountainside—blissfully, while worlds pass by, moved and taken to higher, better spheres until the very last tone and beyond (best enjoyed with headphones)—that are conjured, make it one of the finest last movements I have sampled. This solitary affirmative musical statement, out of all the movements of all of Mahler's symphonies, has completely uncharacteristic tones of Bruckner's ninth, and perhaps that explains the calm that the finale exudes.

Unhurried, MTT paints pictures where Boulez analyses. He is genteel where Sinopoli is raw, labors where Abbado cruises. Ozawa has as much or more intensity in the first two or three movements. I found Sinopoli particularly appealing in his "gloves off" mode, and my idol, Abbado, curiously blasé in this live recording from Berlin. I never knew that subtleness was a desired quality to have in a Mahler symphony, but this recording makes that point and makes it well. With its superb sound in stereo, SACD stereo, and SACD surround (an emphasis is on "ambience" rather than "effect"—no fanfares from behind, this time), it's just the recording to have when you yearn for civilized Mahler.

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