So much myth has accreted to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that it is difficult to know where to begin any more. A farewell to life? A farewell to a culture? A farewell to tonality? An affirmation in the face of death? A piece more from eternity than earth?

Michael Tilson Thomas © Bill Swerbenski
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Bill Swerbenski

All of the above, really, and such are the exalted heights of Mahler’s achievements in this greatest of his symphonies that a satisfactory performance – let alone anything beyond that – is rare. Death hangs over it, of course. That much is clear from Mahler’s notes on the score, and we don’t need overly to connect music and biography to make the link any clearer. But how to deal with that heartbreaking finale, so full of joy only when it ends, a moment that musicologist Deryck Cooke wrote stands equivalent to “Rilke’s ‘dennoch preisen’ – ‘praising life in spite of everything’”? How to make Mahler’s vast musical spans seem whole when the music material, so curt to begin with, breaks down so often? And how to look forwards, to a Schoenberg already far beyond Mahler’s strained tonality by the time this symphony was finished, as well as back?

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco did not answer all of those questions in this, their second concert this season at Carnegie Hall. (I also reviewed the first, a mixed evening of Copland, Mackey, Beethoven, and Mozart with Jeremy Denk.) Indeed, one of the merits of their performance was that it raised as many questions as it answered. Outside their familiar focus on 20th-century American music, perhaps this partnership is most recognised for their Mahler, after a recorded cycle that was moderately received.

Even so, it’s hard to place Tilson Thomas as a Mahlerian. If MTT has been the heir to Bernstein in terms of music education and advocacy of local composers, he eschews his vital excesses in Mahler. Even if clarity rules the day, nor does MTT seem to fit with that class of Mahlerians that connects the composer more consciously with Schoenberg and Berg (the prime examples being Michael Gielen, Pierre Boulez, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose Ninth with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Lincoln Center I reviewed a year ago).

With MTT, any overt emotionalism is constrained, and irony is so underplayed as to be unnoticeable. Simply put, in this Ninth things fell apart, were put back together again in the final movement, only to collapse again in the end. This was an architectural reading, with key developments underlined less by slowing down than by simple pauses, silent or held at volume, which at times tended to undermine the narrative flow Mahler conjures from his tiny cells of material. Tilson Thomas’ recording of this symphony is one of the lengthiest on disc, but if this was slow, I did not notice it – a success in itself.

The first movement was properly disjunctive, and for once those inconsolable passages of solo work, hushed and disfigured, were the centrepieces rather than interludes. Lucid and precise in texture, the playing Tilson Thomas drew from his orchestra was clear enough that Mahler’s intensely contrapuntal writing came through with renewed urgency. In this symphony above any other in Mahler’s repertoire, that allows soloists to shine, and shine they did, particularly in the winds towards the end (Tim Day’s achingly lonely flute especially so). And yet still it lacked that final ounce of vision that elevates any performance of Mahler, even if it was rounded off with a last few pages as convincing as any I’ve heard.

The middle movements, although again flawlessly played, suffered from a lack of sardonicism. The first had an ominously motoric tone to its drunken and dangerous Ländler, coupled with a surprisingly extreme freedom of tempo. But by the end it seemed more charming than anything else, which isn’t quite what we’re looking for here. The fierce “Rondo-Burleske” was considerably better, its brutality brought out with a blocky angularity. Never too nice, and with hints of triumph hidden among the rubble, the meticulously precise style of conductor and orchestra made everything just a touch too clean.

Not so in the Adagio. Few conductors take Mahler’s instruction at face value here – “noch zurückhaltend”, or reserved, cautious – but Tilson Thomas did, for a while at least. The San Francisco Symphony’s strings played with a warmth that never obscured inner parts, without quite finding the depth of tone that, with some orchestras, can make this music sound like some metaphysical cry from the depths. What secured its triumph, though, was a length of line that completely overturned the concision of the first movement, even its despair.