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S & H International Concert Review

Mahler: Symphony No. 4, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Laura Claycomb, soprano; Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, Sept 24, 2003 (HS)

The Fourth Symphony, Mahler's sunny, heaven-seeking interlude between the sturm und drang of the Third and Fifth, is next up on the San Francisco Symphony's scheduled Mahler cycle. Having already done the First, Third and Sixth in similar live performance, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Franciscans through five subscription concerts with the digital recorders rolling. If Wednesday's first go-round is any indication, it will be a keeper.

Christine Schäfer, originally scheduled to sing the finale, bowed out due to a death in her family. Laura Claycomb, whose budding career as a lyric soprano started with the San Francisco Opera's Merola program, stepped in, also singing Mozart's Esultate Jubilate in the first half of the concert. Her light, agile voice could not quite cut through the orchestra at times in the live performance, but no doubt the engineers will work their magic to repair the balances for the CD.

Additional engineering work might be needed to clean up some less-than-ideal entrances by the orchestra, but that's the only possible cavil for this performance. Tilson Thomas drew gorgeous balances, especially in the delicate moments of the scherzo's trios and the languid slow movement. He got the musicians to capture the almost Mozartean playfulness in this symphony. The way the themes were tossed around from soloist to soloist, section to section, was almost like watching the score itself jump off the page. This was music making at its most responsive, edge of the seat stuff for such an easy-going work.

Hummingbird-light playing of the strings gave the first movement a sense of refinement that took it beyond the jingling naïvété that usually defines it. For all the sleigh bells and simple tunes, the orchestra's hushed playing gave it all surprising depth of feeling.

The scherzo, probably the least sardonic in the Mahler canon, was played almost with a wink, as if the sound of Death playing on a mistuned violin were only a hearty joke. When the sun breaks out in the trio, there was a palpable sense of serenity.

The gorgeous adagio went by like a hot air balloon floating across a lush green countryside. There was a plushness to the sound and yet it was all remarkably transparent. This section represented the orchestra's finest playing, and it led with an unerring sense of inevitability to the quiet, parting-of-the-clouds opening of the short finale, the song Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life). If the text, one of the Wunderhorn songs, makes heaven seem like a luxury resort, all lavish meals and dancing virgins, it stops short of treacly. Mahler finds just the right tunes and harmonies to make it really sound like heaven.

Claycomb sang her music with consummate care, perhaps with a bit too much caution, and she could have produced a little more creaminess of tone. Maybe the later concerts will fill in the missing pieces, because the basic outline of her performance was delectable, more so when she goes above the staff than when she sings in the lower register.

Claycomb's work on Esultate Jubilate -- an appropriate companion piece to the Mahler Fourth -- was a delight, especially in the second section, the slow aria. As a well regarded Zerbinetta and Fiakermilli, she could have delivered more vocal fireworks in the outer movements, but the line was clean and elegantly sung. Tilson Thomas, who doesn't conduct much Mozart around here, led a sprightly performance.

The concert opened with the trifling Bunte Suite by the post-World War I German composer Ernst Toth, which featured fine, committed playing in a work seldom played, and justifiably so. It's well crafted but lacks inspiration.

Harvey Steiman



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