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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - San Francisco/Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviews: 7

Review by sperlsco April 22, 2005 (21 of 22 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is another winner from MTT and the SFSO. I would certainly put this in my first tier of favorite M9’s, but would not place it above the recent Chailly/RCOA one, which is perhaps my favorite of the 30+ in my collection. Actually, comparisons of the two are almost required, since both are very recent SACD's and have remarkably similar timings:

MTT: 30:22, 17:04, 13:55, 27:50
Chailly : 30:29, 16:55, 14:01, 28:24

That said, they are not really similar conceptions. As with MTT's recent releases, he has a penchant for really slowing certain phrases and sections to dramatize their effect. Sometimes this takes some getting used to for me (like near the end of his M2.III, a section that still sounds strange to me). By comparison, Chailly really plays up some of the dynamic contrasts. Generally, either way can work for me, since I certainly am not looking for a clone performance.

Here, MTT’s ritards are well thought out and really add to that tension/release throughout. Climaxes are huge, and in some respects better than Chailly. For example, the first climax in Mvt I has a much more audible cymbal crescendo (it is fairly buried on the Chailly). In fact, the climaxes in Mvts I & IV are all done very well by MTT (particularly the Tam-Tam in I). However, be ready for the ritards that he takes into many of the climax episodes, such that the climax and the following tempo are a release from the tension.

The Rondo Burleske is probably my one area of disappointment in this recording. Although Chailly has the same overall slow timing to this movement, he plays the final passage with a manic quality that is missing from the MTT, as if the world is spinning our of control (or the hero’s anger is about to explode, if you prefer). The most glaring difference here is in the percussion. Chailly has “machine-gun” snare drums, and the rest of the RCOA percussion section just plays for all it’s worth. The SFSO percussion is really missing in comparison.

Aside from the end of the R-B, I must give accolades to the SFSO, as it plays spectacularly throughout. I've come to expect nothing less from this cycle. Special mention goes to the brass section, but also to the silky-smooth strings.

From a sound standpoint, the MTT M9 shares the incredible sound quality of the other releases in the SFSO cycle since the M1. The multi-channel sound is hyper-realistic to my ears, where I have the feeling of actually being among an audience in the concert hall -- albeit one that is better behaved than any real audience. The orchestra is crystal clear and generally well balanced. The sound is full and detailed across the entire spectrum.

All in all, I would highly recommend this SACD. However, if you want just one version on SACD (or even CD), then go for the Chailly. I’ll also mention that I consider myself a big fan of the MTT cycle. I think that his M9, M2, and M1 are spectacular, with the M4 just a little behind. His M6 and M3 are worthwhile, but not among my very favorites.


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Review by mwagner1962 May 25, 2005 (7 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I am a huge fan of the MTT/SFSO Mahler cycle, and I have all 6 recordings so far. I find this SACD to be superb in all aspects, in air, imaging, sound quality. I too also have the RCOA/Chailly Mahler 9 on Decca, though that SACD is a PCM recording and not a DSD like the MTT is. Thus, the sound is not quite on par with the SFSO group, and the sound in Davies Symphony Hall is a little more cohesive than the sound in the Groote Zaal in Amsterdam. This however is not a blast against the Chailly, which is also very fine...just different!!!!!

Movement pacing is fairly close to Chailly, and while the Chailly Decca is well played, I have to give the MTT/SFSO the nod for overall better package. MTT gets some nice drama and angst from this recording.

What I like so much about MTT's Mahler is that he lets the brass really rip, yet does not get the destructive sound that Solti (who used to me my favorite Mahler conductor) sometimes got with his Chicago troops. On the MTT, the brass play with vigor and superb sound, yet manage to fit well within the orchestral fabric. Kuddos to the strings and woodwinds who play with a flair that is usually found in the best European orchestras.

With this recording, I get a wonderful sense of the hall and orchestral placement. I would still like to see an actual photo of the orchestra when they record, because I know that the orchestral seating plan changes between the three "regular" evening performance and the three "recording" nights. Thus I still hear string bass from different places than normal.

Overall, this is one of the top SACDs of the cycle, with Sym. No. 2 and No. 3 close behind. No. 4 is my least favorite MTT performance, but then again, the 4th has always been my least favorite..c'est la vie!!

Very highly recommended!!!

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Review by dschawv July 30, 2005 (1 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
An excellent recording.
I bought this not expecting a ton.
Came away saying wow.
My only problem was the flute playing. Maybe the conductor wanted a particular sound.
The last two movem,ents sell it for me.

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Review by Dr. O November 24, 2005 (5 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Many lovers of this Symphony remember quite well the awesome recording by Solti and the Chicago Symphony. That recording is indeed a "tough act to follow."

MTT and the SFS have lived up to the high expectations so many of us had while performing and recording this monumental work by Gustav Mahler. Here we have an entire universe of thoughts and feelings, all extracted from the score with a remarkable understanding and brilliance.

MTT is able to harness the powerful energies contained within the music, and in so doing has increased the intensity of the listening experience. This is indeed a subtle business - knowing when to "let loose" and when not to. But by so doing, the conductor has, I believe, enhanced the quality of what lies behind each and every musical expression.

As usual, the audio quality is spectacular. Kudos to the engineers who make all of this possible for us!

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Review by jlaurson October 10, 2007 (8 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Following his release of the 2nd symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas's Mahler cycle continues to take shape with this 9th on the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's own label. The predecessor did not disappoint and neither does this issue.

Just as the last time I reviewed a new MTT Mahler release, I took the time to listen to as many other performances of Mahler's last (for all practical purposes) symphony as I have in my collection. An acquaintance even lent me Ozawa's Sony recording, available only in Japan. In addition to these "canned" performances, I heard it with the NSO on April 21 and will again this week with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Too much of a good thing? Fortunately not. Every time I hear the 9th, I find something new, and even after listening to it an estimated 35 times over the last three or four weeks, I'm far from being sick of it.

The verdict on the new release, meanwhile, is strikingly similar to that on the 2nd. In short, we have here an excellent performance, with impeccable playing; a great new installment in the MTT-SFSO cycle, if not necessarily an outright first choice. The latter point isn't saying much, of course, because there is really no "clear first choice" in any Mahler symphony. Even where I have a strong favorite, others will swear by a different interpretation. Too much in Mahler depends on character and mood as well as listener preference. If polish is among those, MTT is already off to a good start. From the first movement to the last, it is also a very relaxed performance, well mannered and broad. Of the versions I compared, only Riccardo Chailly (Decca) could match the expansive nature. Of the ones I know, only Levine (Oehms) beats Tilson Thomas, thanks to a slow-motion finale. While I generally don't believe in the usefulness of tables comparing timings (the essence of a performance is not revealed in objective time, but subjective time and through character) I'll include one here anyway, for interest's sake:

Conductor |1 ||2 |||3 ||||4 Total
Abbado III| |25:52 ||14:56 |||12:21 ||||25:56 79:05
Boulez| |29:17 ||16:03 |||12:38 ||||21:25 79:23
Chailly| |30:39 ||16:55 |||14:01 ||||28:24 89:49
Levine| |29:13 ||16:59 |||14:51 ||||32:27 93:30
Sinopoli| |28:09 ||15:12 |||13:16 ||||25:54 82:31
MTT| |30:22 ||17:04 |||13:55 ||||27:50 88:22

MTT clearly takes his time, and his broad first movement unfolds in carefully paced glory. The brass notes are tame and almost sound like the plucked double basses in the opening, a character this recording has in common with most of its rivals, except Sinopoli (DG), where the Philharmonia's aggressive brass sound like falling trees. Sinopoli, whose first movement I find more riveting than the competitors, also gives it a bit more forward momentum, easily as much, at any rate, as the fastest of the bunch, Abbado (DG). MTT's first movement—indeed, the entire symphony—is close in spirit to Chailly, although subtler at times. With a magnificent second and third movement, you get all the polish of the San Francisco Symphony and a naturalness that has every musical element fall into place. As in the second symphony, the feel is elastic and lithe rather than driven.

Again, the true jewel of the performance is the finale. It is the quintessence of slow burn, something that Klemperer's live performances have been said to exemplify. The feelings of lying on ones back in the Austrian mountainside—blissfully, while worlds pass by, moved and taken to higher, better spheres until the very last tone and beyond (best enjoyed with headphones)—that are conjured, make it one of the finest last movements I have sampled. This solitary affirmative musical statement, out of all the movements of all of Mahler's symphonies, has completely uncharacteristic tones of Bruckner's ninth, and perhaps that explains the calm that the finale exudes.

Unhurried, MTT paints pictures where Boulez analyses. He is genteel where Sinopoli is raw, labors where Abbado cruises. Ozawa has as much or more intensity in the first two or three movements. I found Sinopoli particularly appealing in his "gloves off" mode, and my idol, Abbado, curiously blasé in this live recording from Berlin. I never knew that subtleness was a desired quality to have in a Mahler symphony, but this recording makes that point and makes it well. With its superb sound in stereo, SACD stereo, and SACD surround (an emphasis is on "ambience" rather than "effect"—no fanfares from behind, this time), it's just the recording to have when you yearn for civilized Mahler.

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Review by Jonalogic September 23, 2010 (7 of 13 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I had been holding off from reviewing MTT's Mahler cycle, but this one excited me sufficiently that I felt I had to comment.

This is a superb recording and performance in every way. Marshall McLuhan was talking nonsense (as usual) when he said 'the medium is the message'. In this ball game, it's all about the music: nothing more,nothing less. It matters not, ultimately wheher this was recorded in DSD, PCM or parrot food. Likewise, whether 2 or 200 mikes were used.

What does matter is that this is great music, superbly played, and that the SACD and reproducing equipment manage to get out of the way of that music.

MTT seems to be a true Mahlerian; he perfectly balances long-term structure and short-term effect. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, as one has to in this impassioned music, but manages not to overdo it.

The playing matches his conception, and is excellent throughout.

Likewise, this is an impeccable recording of a large orchestra. It is essentially truthful and transparent, with good staging and instrumental dimensionality. Dynamic range is 'concert hall' - accurate, and the string tone ravishing. In particular, this allows the sublime farewell of the final movement to sing, literally.

This recording made me spontaneously start to conduct. It's that good.

No brainer. 5 stars all round. Bravo!

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Review by Luukas February 7, 2014 (2 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony is composer's last full symphony (Tenth is unfinished). In symphony's emotionally finale, Mahler lefts farewell to life.
This Michael Tilson Thomas' recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony is the last release of his mighty new cycle with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. His Mahler cycle beats many others: Valery Gergiev (LSO Live), Leonard Bernstein (DG), David Zinman (RCA) and Jonathan Nott (Tudor).
First movement is very good, and beautiful main theme sounds softly and gentle. Second movement's ländler is performed very well, but Thomas' tempi are little slow. Third movement is stunning and virtuoso: movement's dreamy middle part sounds magical. Movement's end is very wild and strong. And now, the famous heartfelt finale. Strings beautiful melody is performed hopeful, and symphony's quiet end is stunning. Mahler's tempo marking is Adagissimo (in full score's last page) and Thomas leads San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's strings in quiet and calmy D flat major chord. The symphony ends in pppp silence.
By the way, outstanding performance of Mahler's last great orchestral work, and Avie label's recording quality is clear, natural and deep. Brilliant.

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