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Seen and Heard International Concert Review



Mahler: Symphony No. 5 San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 28.09.2005 (HS)



Last time through this symphony, in 2004, Michael Tilson Thomas approached this ungainly score with a simple idea, easy to enunciate, hard to execute. He had the musicians alter the timbre of their instruments to connect each phrase with the one that preceded or followed it. For example, when the bassoon echoes the pizzicato strings in the scherzo, its crisp, quiet attack sounds just like the plucked cellos and violas surrounding it. This requires stunning virtuosity from the players, but the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony made it work. Combined with the conductor's unerring sense of pace, balancing the ever-shifting tempo relationships so they made sense, this gave the piece a sense of unity it often lacks.

That, it turns out, was only a warm up for this time around. The timbral nuances were still there, and Tilson Thomas' sense of tempo was just as well judged, but if anything he seemed intent this time on emphasizing Mahler's own contrasts as much as possible. Rather than trying to bind everything together, he just let it rip, urging the strings on to ever-quieter entrances as the first movement progressed, unleashing the brass to blare away at times, giving the oboes and clarinets permission to sound as mocking as they could in some of their phrases. It was a vivid performance, messy as Mahler can be, but somehow it all pulled together in the end, a validation of a conductor who trusts the composer's work implicitly.

The microphones were on and the digital recorders whirring in the next room, capturing all four of this week's subscriptions concerts (plus a later cleanup session) for the next installment of the orchestra's self-recorded and self-marketed Mahler symphony cycle. With everything now recorded but the massive Eighth (planned for later this season, May 31-June 3, 2006), the innovative process has achieved some remarkable results. Recording the concerts live captures the extra frisson of a real performance in front of a real audience, provides an automatic range of alternate takes, and the cleanup session can take care of any lingering fluffs.

Tilson Thomas' approach to Mahler lies somewhere between the grandeur of Bruno Walter's and Leonard Bernstein's and the crystalline precision of Pierre Boulez'. This is an orchestra that lacks nothing in the virtuosity of its individual members but prides itself on playing like an outsized chamber ensemble. After 10 years under Tilson Thomas' baton, there is a responsiveness and sense of communication that is almost palpable. It shows itself in the way solo turns bounce from one to the next as if being played by a single musician, and a unanimity of approach to phrasing that sounds absolutely natural.

This symphony bristles with solo turns, starting right off with a single trumpet's fanfare, here played by William B. Williams Jr., the acting principal. His tone isn't quite as sweet and round as his predecessor Glen Fischtal's, but it has a steely core, and his sense of rhythm gave the music the kick in the pants it needs to launch the episodic first movement. The full orchestra's entrance was absolutely precise and almost shocking in its ferocity, which made the violins' hushed, vibrato-free traversal of the second, elegiac theme feel almost ghostly. But it quickly blossomed out into real Viennese schmaltz. This symphony is full of those kinds of sudden turns.

With the exception of the relatively brief adagietto, each movement in this symphony includes either extensive brass fanfares or a brass chorale, or both. The sprawling centerpiece, the scherzo, opens with a galumphing romp by the French horns, which segues into an extended obbligato by a solo horn, here enunciated with great glee by principal Robert Ward. As the occurrences of these brass effusions increased in the finale, I became aware of another unifying element in this performance. Each successive utterance by the brass became less and less blare-y, more sonorous. On the final pages, the chorale was hair-raisingly beautiful, and the cascading horns that emerged from it sounded like the perorations of angels.

That finale was a thrilling ride. It had an unbuttoned sense, a celebration of diversity in sound, rhythm and humor. The gleeful romp that follows that final brass chorale felt like a blast of cool air. It will be something to hear if the CD gets it all.

Before intermission, two curios from American composers of the 20th century provided some contrast with the massive forces overflowing the stage for Mahler's symphony. A septet of trumpets and trombones, all muted, had the hall to themselves for Charles Ruggles' Angels, five minutes of quiet, introspective dissonance. Morton Feldman's I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg, one of the composer's patented quirky explorations of sonority and small gestures, featured the Pierrot ensemble of violin, cello, clarinet, flute and piano expanded with percussion and a mezzo soprano who vocalizes without words. If there was a connection with the Mahler, I missed it, but these tart little hors d'oeuvre did provide a nice balance to the banquet that was the Mahler Fifth.



Harvey Steiman

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)