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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1909)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 29 Sept-3 Oct 2004.
SFS MEDIA 821936-0007-2 [89.27]

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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 "expresses an 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.

Anne Ozorio

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