Mahler: Symphony No. 9
LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler: Symphony No. 9
WORKS: Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 821936-0007-2
As Michael Tilson Thomas reaches the half-way mark in his San Francisco Mahler cycle, the balances are evenly weighed. We sit forward, as before, to savour infinitely well-prepared and committed orchestral playing in sound which rivals Chailly’s state-of-the-art Decca engineering. On the other hand, MTT’s over-masterful slow burns and exaggerated ritenutos are surely only second-best against the volatile impulse Abbado finds in every bar of the Ninth. Tilson Thomas has classic precedents: Bruno Walter in later years applied the brakes to the life-versus-death welters of the titanic first movement, and Bernstein slowed down, too. But he always maintained intensity of movement. As Mahler’s most flamboyant gesture of optimism makes its biggest leap in a final gesture of defiance before a third collapse (track 1, 20:00), the San Francisco players do their best to fly with it, but Tilson Thomas’s over-sculpted articulation never lets them leave the ground.
Salvation lies in immaculately-balanced detail, and the way Tilson Thomas – unlike Chailly – makes it speak (listen out for the way the final fragments of the scherzo’s Landler die on the woodwinds’ lips). San Francisco horns and trombones, supreme by any Mahlerian standards, deserve the sheen this supernaturally beautiful recording gives them; and the way in which, in the words of annotator Michael Steinberg, ‘silence wins out over sound’, is spellbinding – you’d never know there was an audience present to witness the revelation. Not quite the total triumph of Tilson Thomas’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, then; but it certainly has its metaphysical moments. David Nice