The relationship that brings conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) together with Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony in D major and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has reached a point where it stretches back almost 40 years. When MTT made his SFS debut in 1974 (at the age of 29), he chose to perform this symphony. Since he assumed the position of SFS Music Director, I have lost count of the number of performances he has given of it. (The last one was in May of 2011.) Yet, for all of that frequency, the symphony continues to inspire MTT to pursue new approaches to interpretation. As a result, its every return to the SFS program schedule carries the freshness of a new listening experience.
My response to the 2011 reading of the symphony was to write about it as “haunted by death from its very first note to the dying breath of its final gesture.” While one can neither escape nor deny the morbid qualities of Mahler’s rhetoric, last night’s interpretation seemed to show more signs of acceptance of the inevitable. Rather than trying to outwit death (as he had tired to do in manipulating the numbering of his symphonies with the insertion of Das Lied von der Erde), the Mahler presented last night in Davies Symphony Hall seemed to be using this symphony as a summa of his past achievements (particularly the symphonies), taking stock of his accomplishments before going into “that good night” (gentle or otherwise).
For the listener, this is an approach to Mahler’s ninth that can be informed by Mahler: Origins and Legacy, the four-hour Keeping Score release on both DVD and Blu-ray, which provides two one-hour discussions by MTT of Mahler’s life and work, each followed by a concert video. Through the discussions, one can learn about specific aspects of Mahler’s grammatical, logical, and rhetorical approaches that recur throughout his compositions. In that context each of the four movements of the ninth has its own elements of familiarity (as does the decision to structure the symphony in four movements, something that Mahler had not done since his sixth symphony, which is probably the most death-obsessed composition in the entire Mahler canon).
The tempo marking for the first movement is Andante comodo, but the music is a continuation of Mahler’s ongoing obsession with funeral marches. This one has a particularly slow but steady beat, against which we have the rhythmic irregularities that have been associated with Mahler’s defective mitral valve, the source of his (eventually) fatal heart condition. This is followed by the two inner movements, which might be called “Scherzo/Counter-scherzo.” The scherzo movement has folksy ländler qualities, often galumphing with the sort of peasant vigor one might see in a Breughel canvas, whose mood is occasionally shattered by gestures of sarcasm. That sarcasm dominates in the “Counter-scherzo,” whose tempo marking is Rondo burleske. The intensity of the sarcasm comes to a fever pitch in the coda of the movement, in which the familiarity of the rondo theme is abandoned in favor of a hell-bent assault on the final measures of the movement. The air then clears for the final Adagio movement, which, in many ways, reflects back on the hymn-like Langsam movement that concluded the third symphony. (The third symphony is in D minor; but that final movement is in D major. The ninth begins in D major, but its final movement migrates to D-flat major.) However, while the hymn of the third symphony ends with full-throated praise from the entire “congregation,” the ninth almost evaporates in its conclusion, very much a reflection of the quietude in the final measures of Das Lied von der Erde.
This was the overall plan that seemed to emerge from MTT’s interpretation last night. Perhaps, like Mahler, he was approaching this music in the context of the prolific extent of his past achievements. Perhaps it was just that, once again, the music spoke to him in a voice different from those of previous performances. Whatever the reason, this was an inspiring account of what has become a familiar symphony for SFS “regulars;” and much satisfaction can be taken from the fact that MTT has not settled into any single interpretation of this particular piece of music.