Notes and Editorial Reviews
Leonard Bernstein used to say that you can't exaggerate Mahler enough, and presumably he offered his own interpretations as examples of this dictum. It would be interesting to have his reaction to some of today's performances, because since his death many conductors have taken this music way beyond the extremes that Bernstein evidently intended, particularly in matters of tempo--specifically slow tempos. You probably never thought the time would come when adjectives such as "poised" and "balanced" would apply to Bernstein's Mahler, but now more than ever they certainly do, and in fact always did when you come right down to it. After all, underplaying is every bit as much a defect and an indulgence as is excess. As an
interpreter, many of Lenny's most surprising strokes were in fact based on a particularly literal reading of the score: that's what made his Haydn so refreshing, for example, never mind his Mahler.
These thoughts came to mind in listening to Michael Tilson Thomas' Mahler Ninth, because it also is a performance of great emotional extremes, one that wrings every drop of expression from the music--and takes its time in doing so. The first movement runs just over 30 minutes, the finale to nearly 28, and yet neither sounds particularly slow. You may be familiar with the false dichotomy often seen in descriptions of Mahler performances, opposing "self-indulgent" interpretations to "symphonic" ones. The former are characterized, as is this performance, by generous helpings of rubato and wide fluctuations of tempo between sections, the latter by fewer contrasts and (usually) a swifter, less episodic view overall. Historically Bernstein was the avatar of the former approach; conductors like Kubelik and Haitink represented the latter (along with Horenstein, whose general lack of basic podium competence, in Mahler especially, places him in a special "cult" category beyond questions of musical quality).
The reason this dichotomy is false is simple: Mahler's symphonies depend for their structural as well as expressive success on the conductor's willingness to indulge the extremes of tempo, dynamics, timbre, and texture that they embody, and the only real question (pace Mr. Bernstein) is how much really is too much. Obviously this will differ from one listener to the next, and so there may be some who find this Ninth Symphony to be "too much". At the same time, it has to be conceded that Thomas' interpretation, like Bernstein's, bases its excesses (if that's what they are) firmly in what Mahler wrote, and not on some cheap caprice or gratuitous whim of the conductor.
For example, at the catastrophic climax of the first movement, where Mahler (parenthetically) says "with utmost power", Thomas really slams on the brakes for that final push, before launching a most devastating collapse. It's funny how everyone who talks about this passage characterizes it by that parenthetical comment. In fact, Mahler's principal, non-parenthetical expressive indication here is simply "pesante" ("heavy"), and that's just what Thomas delivers. The bottom line: there's a wide range between the peaks and valleys in the performance of this movement, but all of it finds its justification in the score and serves the music formally as well as expressively. It's an amazingly moving and cogent interpretation.
The same observation holds true of the second movement, where Thomas extracts plenty of klutziness from the first theme, but also takes care to observe Mahler's instructions to accelerate at each appearance of the demented waltz that follows (so few conductors manage this successfully). Tempos here are relatively fleet, save for the very relaxed slow Ländler, and the same contrasts characterize the Rondo:Burleske, in which ferocious outer sections enclose an unusually tender, meditative central interlude. Thomas gets some especially virtuosic playing in the closing pages of this movement, which generate great tension and excitement. The finale, with gorgeous string tone and a truly mesmerizing stillness in its "dead" episodes (fabulous contributions from the solo winds), comes across as a true culmination and counterpoise to the eruptive first movement, and once again I couldn't help but notice how Thomas has drawn his interpretation to scale, ensuring that the various elements remain in balance despite (or because of) his willingness to take the music as far as he feels it can go.
Sonically this set is impressively engineered both in stereo and SACD multichannel surround formats, with one noteworthy exception: at times, such as at the end of the third movement, the timpani lack presence (but thankfully not at the climax of the first movement). Indeed, at measure 480 in the second movement, just before the final return of the waltz, a few strokes are either missing or inaudible, but as noted above the response of the orchestra generally is sensational. There's no question that the partnership of Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco represents one of the more impressive collaborations in music today. The ensemble plays its collective heart out for him, and this in turn gives him the confidence he needs to surrender entirely to his interpretive ideas, certain of their effective realization. All of this is clearly audible in his very fine new Ninth, one of the high points in San Francisco's ongoing Mahler cycle. [5/17/2005]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 9 in D major by Gustav Mahler
Michael Tilson Thomas
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1908-1909; Austria
Venue: Live Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA
Length: 89 Minutes 27 Secs.
Notes: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA (09/29/2004 - 10/03/2004)
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