With so much Mahler around, it's time to explain who he really was and why his symphonies have permeated our society - in other words, a job for Michael Tilson Thomas, the hyper-articulate music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
He turns his attention to the composer he has championed for decades in the next two installments of his PBS series Keeping Score (9 p.m. Thursday and June 30 on WHYY-TV12).
It's far more sophisticated than most composer documentaries, and it should be. Mahler's Symphony No. 9 has become such a fixture both in concerts and broadcasts that when Tilson Thomas says the intentionally jumbled third movement is Mahler's self-portrait - showing us an external caricature that his contemporaries saw, and later in the movement, the soul his close friends knew - your history with the music kicks in for a major "aha!" moment.
Though music documentaries are often created out of visual priorities - what's heard supports what's seen - Tilson Thomas uses that priority to show Mahler's world through the composer's own eyes: Camera crews visit the small Czech town where, as a boy, he lived over a tavern - and catch the still-living folk traditions that he later quoted, almost verbatim, in his symphonies. Archival footage of pre-World War I Vienna shows the city where he made his career at the Vienna State Opera, and Tilson Thomas also visits Mahler's many countryside composing huts. One even had a locked safe where he stored his work every night.
In a sense, Tilson Thomas traces Mahler's torrential rivers of music to their sources. The editing is virtuosic: Tilson Thomas will begin a sentence in Europe and end it back home in San Francisco - seamlessly. And he takes the high road. In his discussion of the unfinished Symphony No. 10, he doesn't mention that recent scholars believe that Mahler's composing stopped abruptly upon learning that his wife had been unfaithful.
Other Tilson Thomas points are debatable. Mahler symphonies often cross-reference each other; when Tilson Thomas shows how Mahler's last completed symphony (the 9th) quotes his first major work (Songs of a Wayfarer), it's more an illustration of intuitive compositional ingenuity than - as Tilson Thomas contends - symbolic bookends in the composer's compositional output.
Such overarching connections are the cost of maintaining a clean narrative line while covering lots of biographical ground - in contrast to Going Against Fate, David Zinman's impressionistic examination of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 that, in its way, is as revelatory as Keeping Score. The Viviane Blumenschein film is a bonus disc in Zinman's superb, recently released RCA Red Seal boxed set of Mahler symphonies.
Here, the narrative is the symphony itself - allowing room for all concerned to take scenic detours. Detailed rehearsals are caught on camera. Even the famous hammer blows of the final movement are examined for the kind of sound they should make; the conductor wanted something suggesting lightning.
Zinman takes time out to sing Tom Lehrer's satire of Mrs. Mahler, a song titled "Alma," that lists her lovers and husbands. Modern gray cityscape views are edited to the music, MTV style. It's tempting to say that Mahler's music relates more to our era than his; then again, maybe Mahler connects with whatever present it inhabits.
All classical composers are renewable in performance, but Mahler is more renewable than most, failing only when unduly objectified: As with Chopin, performers must speak through the music in highly personal terms. That's why Tilson Thomas, Zinman, and especially Eschenbach can be worlds apart in their approaches and all be equally convincing.
Zinman has a precision of expression bordering on tidiness, which explains why he declines to describe the far-flung orchestrations as messy, preferring "obsessive." With Zinman, the trajectory of the obsessions is blindingly clear.
Eschenbach is darker and more ruminative on the Medici TV cycle, which is of particular interest locally because a number of the Mahler symphonies he recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra show no sign of ever being released. Like Leonard Bernstein and Klaus Tennstedt, Eschenbach delivers phrase after phrase with meaning so fearlessly personal but incredibly right as to seem carved in stone - at least in the moment. With Mahler, there's so much stone, so many ways to carve it, and so many musicians with their own ideas as to how it's done . . . .
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.