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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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