One interesting development
in the recording industry has been the
advent of in-house recordings, by and
for individual orchestras and venues.
Musicians and their supporters can decide
what they want to play and record. A
greater percentage of profits, too,
remain with them. In an age where musicians
often have to moonlight in order to
scrape a decent living, any venture
that gives them credit for their work
is something to admire. Without musicians,
there'd be no music. As a listener,
it's easy to think of a recording as
an object made solely for our benefit.
But a recording is more than that. It
documents a moment in time when a group
of musicians gathered together to play.
Some performances will be better than
others, of course, but the act of music-making
is in itself something to respect.
Mahler's Ninth is such
a powerful piece of music that it has
generated equally powerful interpretations.
For some it is a dark vision: I find
it difficult to listen to Jascha Horenstein's
September 1966 version too often, much
as I admire it. It's just too lacerating
for comfort. For others it has profound
spiritual resonance. A very dear friend,
in the final stages of a long illness,
found solace and transcendence. Good
music can generate numerous different
approaches. This new account, with Michael
Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco
Symphony, should appeal to those who
prefer a less emotionally intense version,
and one which focuses on musical architecture.
The approach certainly has its merits.
Alban Berg's famous
comment that the vast first movement
extraordinary love of this earth, for
Nature; the longing to live on it in
peace, to enjoy it completely, to the
very heart of one's being" does
seem to have been taken on board here
only too well.
Certainly there's a
feeling of unhurried openness and peace.
Tilson Thomas stretches the slow march
almost to walking pace. Much attention
is given to detail at the expense of
the frisson of what Berg identified
as "a premonition of death"
propelling the music forwards. When
the flute soars towards the end, you
suddenly realise that time's up though
you'd hardly noticed. Mahler noted that
the scherzo should be taken "as
a leisurely Ländler", and
so it is, if somewhat dragged out. More
sense of chill might have been welcome
with the strings, but this reading seems
to deliberately avoid the highly coloured
emotion more death-obsessed interpretations
employ. The trombones and tuba in the
Rondo burleske were suitably enthusiastic.
The repeated crescendos did not overwhelm
at the expense of refinements like the
melancholic violin solo, and the movement
ended with a rousing flourish. This
understated approach found best expression
in the Adagio, where the strings shimmered
and seemed to evaporate into the ether.
I've heard many far
more impassioned, expressive versions
of this symphony, but also quite a few
with less going for them. This isn't
my preferred approach to the Ninth,
but I can see where Tilson Thomas is
coming from. It's a version for those
who appreciate abstract music more than
emotional excess and "star"
turns. Ultimately, I don't think this
is his definitive version either. He's
capable of more, as is an orchestra
like this. To be fair, this isn't a
big flashy production issue and has
no pretensions that way. The design
is basic, the booklet sparse and the
sound quality nothing fancy. I think
of it more as a "family snapshot",
or a home movie, for those who know
the orchestra well.