Mahler: Symphony No. 5 San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco,
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.
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.
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.