Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major ("Symphony of a Thousand")
Symphony No. 9
In the not so distant past, MTT and the finely tuned and responsive orchestra he's so conscientiously built in San Francisco would both have been signed to exclusive contracts with a major recording label, and the ongoing wonders they've been producing together fully documented for all to hear. But these days, the cost of recording, at least in America, has become prohibitive, forcing orchestras to release their (mostly live) performances on their own in-house labels.
In this respect, it made perfect economic and artistic sense that the San Francisco would choose to inaugurate its own series of recordings with the MTT-led Mahler cycle that began in 2001 with the release of the Sixth Symphony, and now concludes, almost ten years later, with these performances of the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Symphonies. Like his mentor Leonard Bernstein, MTT has always shown an affinity for and a deep understanding of the music of Gustav Mahler. In fact, the very first music that he conducted in public — with the Boston Symphony, stepping in for an indisposed William Steinberg — was the Mahler Ninth Symphony.
Given that MTT's Mahler cycle has received almost universal adulation, what I'm about to say must definitely count as a minority opinion. For one thing, I regret that for almost a decade the only composer MTT has had a chance to record is Mahler, when he's given so many illuminating performances of other composers both old and new. But more to the point, I've found this series uneven. Certainly there are performances that rival the very greatest that particular symphony has received (I'm thinking here of Symphonies Three, Four, and Five), but there are also performances that, good as they are, don't quite rise to the level of the competition (Symphonies One and Two), and two outright disappointments (Symphonies Six and Seven). As I opened the wrapping of these two new SACDs, I found myself hoping for the best, fearing for the worst. Given the unpredictability of past releases in the series, how would these final three performances measure up?
I'm happy to report that, with the exception of one notable caveat, the series ends in a blaze of glory. This is, for example, the greatest performance, let alone recording, of the Eighth Symphony that I've ever heard. Though MTT has always been attuned to the forward-looking aspects of Mahler's writing, here he seems to be looking back to the 19th Century in general, and another secular, but quasi-religious choral work, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It's hard not to think of that earlier work in listening to MTT's "Symphony of a Thousand." It's almost as if Mahler had decided to amplify, magnify the spirit and character of Beethoven's all-consuming vision. In MTT's hands, the "Veni, Creator Spiritus" is soaring, urgent, and impetuous, the very apotheosis of Romanticism.
I'm shamed to admit that in other performances of this symphony, even very good ones, I often find myself growing restless during the scene from Faust. I can't help anticipating the grand finale, the most rapturously beautiful music that Mahler ever wrote. In olden days of vinyl, when Mahler Eighths came in the form of two record sets, I sometimes couldn't stop myself from moving straight from Side One to Side Four, thereby skipping the middle portions altogether. But this performance held me deep inside the music throughout Part Two. MTT presents the music theatrically, operatically, gradually and convincingly building the tension to its ecstatic release in the "Chorus Mysticus." For the first time in a long time, I found myself paying close attention to the words, the unfolding drama. Which is to say, MTT sees this score as a unified whole, not two very different sections that, in some performances at least, seem to have no connection.
With the exception of the ever-reliable James Morris, the vocal soloists were new to me. Judging from the photos in the accompanying booklet, they are, by and large, very young, and bring a real sense of vitality and passion to their individual roles. But the star of this performance is most definitely the chorus, for they confidently meet every challenge Mahler demands of them, singing with heroic exuberance in the first part, and an incandescent tenderness in the second.
Turning from the Eighth to the Ninth, I find myself wanting to ask a simple and unanswerable question: how could the same man have composed both works? The Ninth is as intensely anguished as the Eighth is sunny and uplifting. Certainly it's no small measure of MTT's genius that he's able to represent both extremes with equal conviction. At least through its first three movements, his Ninth is unrelievedly grim and expressionistic, a descent into nightmare.
In this respect, the inner movements work exceptionally well. In the second, a heavy-footed, almost tipsy landler competes with a lurching, grotesque waltz. In this performance, you won't find the rustic charm or nostalgia that characterizes so many other ones. I've never heard the mocking horns that accompany both the landler and the waltz given such prominence. The Rondo Burleske that follows is the most purely violent music Mahler ever wrote. For me, the most terrifying moment in the entire orchestral repertory comes when the loony, anarchic march interrupts the all too fleeting lyricism of the trio. I've never heard this passage played more aggressively, savagely than it is here. It's almost as if Mahler is anticipating all the brutality and horror that would characterize the new century.
If I have one caveat concerning this otherwise remarkable performance, it has to do with the opening andante. MTT takes it at thirty minutes, which is very slow indeed. Other conductors (notably Carlo Maria Guilini with the Chicago and Karajan in his late recording with the Berlin) have shown that this music can work at a very slow tempo. But here it's not just a question of tempo. The textures are deliberately thick, almost clotted, and the colors unrelievedly somber. This makes the music seem static, oppressive, and at times almost unbearable. Of course, some would say that that's exactly what Mahler wants. As Deryck Cooke has pointed out, the narrative of the movement takes the listener from the premonition of death to its certainty. In the margin of the score, Mahler keeps asking for "vehemence," and I think it could be argued, that's exactly what MTT delivers, as exhausting as that might be to listen to over a thirty-one minute stretch.
Still, after several hearings, I found MTT's approach simply too distracting. But I have no such reservations about the final adagio, and not just because here MTT's tempo is more conventional, if not a shade faster than most. As the movement proceeds, we journey from a hopeless longing to the intimacy and resignation of the closing pages, and all without a trace of sentimentality or melodrama.
Mahler turned to his Tenth Symphony within days of having finished the Ninth, a sign that he knew perfectly well just how limited his time was. The month he had left was hardly enough time to complete the massive, five-movement design he had sketched in outline form. Like Bernstein before him, MTT has eschewed all reconstructions of the symphony as a whole, and gives us only the single movement Mahler actually completed. MTT's approach to the music is singular and refreshing. He makes it clear that Mahler was not trying to rehearse the adagio from the Ninth, but exploring new territory. The contrast between the spacious, otherworldly melody and the broken chord figurations that keep interrupting it are left unresolved here. As Eberhardt Klemm has said, the music is "always on the way without ever getting there." For MTT, Mahler's career ends with neither the affirmation of the Eighth or the dread of the Ninth, but with an ambiguity that slowly devolves to silence.
Though you wouldn't mistake them for, say, the bands from New York, Boston, or Chicago, the San Francisco Symphony plays with an intensity and understanding that often make it seem as if they've been hotwired directly to cerebral cortex of their conductor. There have been many storied associations of conductors and orchestras in the history of American music: the happy marriage of MTT and his San Francisco musicians is surely one of them.
Demonstration quality sound has been a consistent feature of this series from the first, and so it is here.
The engineers give us a first balcony perspective, a wide and realistic (and deep) soundstage that can securely accommodate both Mahler's huge climaxes and the most delicate of his expressive gestures.
In the end, I heartily, urgently recommend these recordings for their combination of interpretive insight, thrilling playing and singing, and glorious sound. If Mahler is important to you, I think you'll find much to enjoy on these four discs, even if, in the end, you too have a problem with that andante.