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MTT’s Mahler 9

Discussion in 'Music & Music Streaming Services' started by Todd_A, Jul 30, 2005.

  1. Todd_A


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    An unusual recording this. Bruno Walter (CBS), Otto Klemperer, and Claudio Abbado (1999) are currently my reigning triumvirate in this work, all for different reasons, of course. Michael Tilson Thomas’ recordings of the Second, Fourth, and Sixth have all captured my fancy, and if they haven’t become my outright favorites, they come darn close. So it was with extremely high expectations that I listened to this recording. Did he repeat the feat? The answer is not so simple.

    This is my favorite Mahler work. I’ve listened to it perhaps seven or eight dozen times. Perhaps more. I know when specific instruments are poised to make their entrances; I know when the tempi are supposed to speed up or slow down; I know when chamber music whispers are to erupt into orchestral furies. This is all by feeling, mind you, not by some slavish devotion to the clock. I allow for great latitude in interpretation of this work. It needs it. It deserves it. Given MTT’s penchant for slower than normal tempi and extremely flexible phrasing and rubato – hell, I’ll say it: he’s downright idiosyncratic – I came to this work expecting to here a softer, more rounded, but ultimately emotional reading. That’s certainly what I got. It’s just not what I expected.

    Let me begin at the beginning. The first movement – a first movement like no other – is a long, wandering, meticulously structured beast, but one that masks its intricacies with a purely musical façade. One needn’t sweat the structural niceties to appreciate this movement shrouded in death. Some conductors take a stern, unforgiving approach (Klemperer) while others take a more humane and sorrowful approach (Walter). But MTT, he does something different. The very opening is remarkably soft and tenderly beautiful, and as more of the orchestra joins in, he keeps it that way. He also keeps it on the slow side. The first tutti is reasonably and satisfyingly hefty and dramatic. So far, nothing unusual. But listen more, and something odd becomes apparent. The movement is hazy, almost dream-like. Nothing is clearly delineated, nothing is solid. One can hear, indeed, luxuriate in glorious string tone strangely devoid of stinging dissonance. One can try to follow along as various instruments or groups of instruments play their lines with that certain executive brilliance that is a hallmark of this series. But it doesn’t make sense. At the same time, it sort of makes sense. Does that make sense? Sometimes this unusual approach goes to extremes – the stretch between about 14’ and 15’30” sounds discombobulated. The whole first movement does. While it all has a point, few if any points are made very strongly. All of the detail that MTT brings out, all of the seemingly confused elements, they don’t cohere like I’m used to. Where is the marmoreal strength of Klemperer, for instance? While there is certainly much to enjoy, I was a bit baffled.

    The second movement didn’t help. It opens in an appropriately more robust manner than the first movement, but then the first entry of the strings is halting and exaggerated, distended and disturbing. The entire movement moves along thusly. It’s as though he’s trying to overcompensate for something. The rambunctious parts are too rambunctious; the sunnier parts are too sunny – well, they’re too sunny when the orchestral clouds part. There is no one passage that comes to life and jumps out and grabs the listener at the expense of the others. It moves from fevered moment to fevered moment. It’s almost like Thomas is trying to out-Mahler Mahler.

    The third movement is more successful. Well, more conventionally successful. The bite, the anger, the swiftness, the aggression: it’s all there. The strings play whirling frenzies, the brass blat out. There’s a corporate digging in that raises the temperature noticeably. While not as fiery and intense as Abbado’s 1999 traversal, or as ominous as Klemperer’s, it fits more in line with what one might expect.

    Then comes the marvel of an Adagio. Then it all makes sense. The whole interpretation clicks. In only a matter of seconds. The opening is poignant and the San Francisco strings sound as sumptuous and achingly beautiful as one could ever hope for. But sadness permeates the whole thing, from the first note. That’s what gives it away; that’s what reveals Mr Thomas’ intent. The work is not merely a piece of music, it is a journey. The work is an innately human response to death. It is Mahler’s innately human response to the death of his daughter. The work musically exemplifies what it must be like to lose a child, at least for me. There is the horrific confusion and shock that comes with the death. That’s the opening movement. There are the attempts to console oneself by remembering happier times, exaggerating the good moments, and fitfully trying to hold the anguish at bay. That’s the second movement. Then comes the anger, the unbelieving rage that makes one want to tear the world apart. That’s the third movement. Finally, there is overwhelming sadness combined with pitiable acceptance. That is this requiem of an Adagio. The haunting warmth the orchestra provides fits the conception perfectly. Thomas then builds up the tension in a flawlessly fluid way until, at 17’13”, one of the greatest moments in all of music arrives: a vast, inconsolable outpouring of grief made all the more devastating by the acceptance that the loss, that the tragic death, is real. The orchestra weeps and weeps, and not just for the minute or two afterword, but until the very end of the piece, as though this enormous musical being collapses from emotional exhaustion, breathless from the crying, exhausted from the suffering. Perhaps I hear more than is there. I cannot offer definitive documentary evidence for my outlook (and apparently, at least partially, Mr Thomas’ view) on the work, though this is the first purely musical work he began after his daughter’s death. But I’m not sure documentary evidence would convince me any more than what I hear. (The liner notes reveal that at least one Mahler biographer thinks this is a possibility, too.) I’m not sure anything can convince me more than how MTT’s version ends.

    It is not an unqualified triumph. The disconcerting opening still leaves me dissatisfied. I will listen again, though, to hear if I overlooked anything, to hear if I misunderstood anything. There is something else, too. It is time. With most composers and works, I’m always subconsciously aware of time. The tempi, the rhythm, the passing of time; I sense it all. While some composers can play with time, and make it melt away, making hours seem irrelevant even as they perceptibly slip by, as with much Wagner, that’s not the case with this composer. Mahler suspends time. For practical purposes, when the music is playing, time doesn’t exist. Well, at least with the best recordings. The big three I mentioned all have that effect on me. This one does not. Well, at least not all of the time. The great Adagio certainly does it to me, and there are some moments throughout the rest of the work that do, too. But it is not sustained. So this interpretation does not reach the summit. It comes close, though. Close enough for me.

    It seems almost churlish to mention something as prosaic as sound quality after hearing the recording, but for those who care, it is generally superb, though not as clear and weighty as the Second. The bass drum sounds a little boomy and indistinct, too. But these complaints are piffle in the face of such music. Such profound music.

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