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Gustav MAHLER (1869-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-2) [73:05]
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 18 September Ė2 October 2005. DDD SACD
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0012-2 [73:05]
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Whenever I review one of Michael Tilson Thomasís mew San Francisco Mahler recordings I resolve at the outset that I will not mention the name Leonard Bernstein. Looking back I seem to have had mixed success in my resolve and you will see that I have already failed this time. The reason for this is clear once again because the ghost of Tilson Thomasís admired mentor hovers over at least parts of this new recording and, as is often the case, secondhand clothes never look right on the new wearer. The main problem lies mostly, but not exclusively, in the first movement where the funeral march passages, so crucially important to establishing the initial mood of tragedy and despair that will in the end be overturned by Mahler, are tampered with by MTT in much the same way that Bernstein did. The difference is that Bernstein carried it all off because he seemed to have absorbed the music into himself so much that it became part of the whole experience. I never quite liked it very much or approved, but it didnít bother me too much. Here with Tilson Thomas these mannerisms seem fixed to the surface of the music rather than embedded in it. This is a march and marches have to be regular - fundamentally rhythmic. Anyone marching behind this coffin would keep having to hesitate to fall back into step. There is also a tendency for the woodwind to be too "clipped" in some of their phrasing that, at times, suggests an air of jauntiness. I think I know what Tilson Thomas is aiming at - a kind of military brusqueness - but I think he is just complicating the movement with too many ideas when less would have been "more". Compare him with Rudolf Schwarz and you get the march idea straightaway. These woodwind players are very good, but I do miss the unique "keening" sound that Barbirolli gets from the New Philharmonia though that is unique. Itís not all negative, though. The clarity of the recording and playing of the bass end of the music, especially in the coda, is impressive and moving. There will be some Mahlerites who will, nevertheless, warm to this whole approach to the first movement, but I am not one.

This mindset is maintained in the second movement, just as it should be and has the effect of knitting together the two movements well enough. Indeed the opening is excellent with any slight lack of wildness more than made up for in trenchancy by the digging in of the lower strings. As he starts out Tilson Thomas puts not a foot wrong in what is one of the most challenging of movements Mahler ever wrote. The clearly balanced recording and excellent playing again picks out every contrapuntal line up to and including the central monody of cellos which is treated with a mellow nostalgia that is most affecting. It is from about now that the interference I noted in the first movement comes back to cause more problems. The predilection for "stop-go" tempo change, this time on a grander scale, causes Tilson Thomas to lose his way a little through the complex argument. He drags out the tempo prior to the choraleís approach and also seems determined to make as much noise as possible with the heavy brass, superb though they are. Then he hurries up the chorale only to slam on the breaks for the collapse at the end. It is all impressively achieved by the orchestra but I think it overheats music that is already white-hot without any more stoking.

The change of mood demanded by the Scherzo is well delivered because this movement is easily the finest part of the performance. This is a movement where a flexibility of tempo, where a "stop-go" that is confidently delivered, can enhance this movement and so it proves. Tilson Thomas allows himself to illuminate every little highway and byway of this music and even though he slows down in some of the passages to a remarkable degree he never loses sight of the bigger picture or that element of dance that is so important. The horn solos are all superb, gloriously ripe and life-enhancing. Mahler worried that conductors would take this movement too fast and so I think he would have liked this performance very much, as do I. Here is Mahler in "full leaf and flower" and glorious it is to hear even at a duration of over nineteen minutes.

The Adagietto starts with a wistful serenity about it but as it progresses the slowing down that Mahler certainly asks for is taken far too literally and also the mannerisms in the wrong place creep back in. Simple, heartfelt music gets distorted by trying to wring out extra emotion. When you are glad for the arrival of the last movement something is not quite right about the Adagietto you have just heard. As it happens the last movement is delivered most winningly and, with the excellence of the orchestra in every department keeping everything bowling along, the recording strides home with verve and confidence. The fact that the Adagietto recalls in this movement donít seem to really register says more about the performance the former movement received than the latter. Let it be said that the end wins through well after what has been a patchy performance.

It always seems to be damning with faint praise when I find myself making the caveat that those who are collecting a particular cycle of Mahler symphonies can buy a current instalment with confidence. It isnít meant that way but it does mean that I would not recommend the individual issue of that particular work over and above any rival versions. As far as I can tell only the Fourth Symphony in this Tilson Thomas cycle can have that accolade and this Fifth does not equal it. It is, therefore, another worthy addition to a fine cycle for those collecting it, but other collectors need to look to Barshai (Brilliant Classics 92205), Rudolf Schwarz (Everest EVC9032), Barbirolli (EMI GROC CDM5 669102) and Shipway (Membran 222845) to name but four absolutely outstanding Fifths with the first two remaining my personal favourites for their overall grasp of Mahlerís greatest work.

For the collectors of the Tilson Thomas cycle, a fine Fifth. For everyone else, look elsewhere.

Tony Duggan


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