San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

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Mahler: Symphony No. 9 Review

by James Leonard

Imagine Mahler's Ninth without tears. The symphony Mahler composed after the death of his daughter and the diagnosis that would soon kill him, the symphony that more than any other sings of bottomless grief and endless sorrow, the symphony that more than any other sings the swan song of German music and European culture, the symphony that more than any other confirms Mahler's status as one of the great tragic artists of Western civilization without tears. It can't be done, you say?

Sure it can. And, what's more, Mahler's Ninth is better without tears. In this 2004 recording by Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony, Mahler's Ninth is performed with restraint and dignity, but without tears. Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco still sing of grief and sorrow, but without tears. They still hymn the ineffable beauty of life in this world and the eternal luminosity of life in the world to come. They still rise to climaxes of overwhelming strength and sink into codas of unbearable poignancy. And they still accomplish the greatest miracle of all by holding back the dying of the light with the limitless humanity of their performance. But they do it without tears. And it's all the more moving for that. The recording is utterly transparent, allowing the clear light of infinity to shine through.

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