Should anyone think classical music has little or no
relevance to todayís world let them read the first page of the liner
notes for this new recording of Mahlerís Sixth Symphony. "This
recordingÖ was made during the San Francisco Symphonyís concerts of
September 12-15, 2001 and captures a collective response to the events
of September 11th. The performance of this music, planned
long before that day, helped all involved Ö gather their thoughts and
emotions as they attempted to come to grips with chaos." Later
the same writer says: "Ö though moments of transcendent beauty
unfold at its centre, this symphony offers no simple answers".
Well it certainly offers no easy answers, that much is true.
But the end-message of this work is quite unequivocal. Fate, in the
guise of a major triad changing to a minor one over a military march
rhythm on percussion, finally conjures up hammer blows that fell the
workís hero "like a tree is felled", leaving nothing but disaster
and loss of hope. "Lifeís a bitch and then you die," as Mahlerian
Deryk Barker summed it up. So of all the symphonies to find yourself
conducting and playing in America on 12th September 2001
Mahlerís Sixth must be the one you would have wanted least, or so you
would think. At the end no balm, no comfort, no consolation, just tragedy.
There even seems a particularly malevolent force at work in the world
of coincidence to have allowed this to happen. If it had been possible
would there have been a temptation to change the programme for something
easier on the emotions, I wonder? I think it says much for the courage
of Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and their
audience that they opted to go into the abyss anyway, four times, when
turning away from it must have been what they really wanted to do most
of all. It also says much for the integrity of Tilson Thomas that in
no way does he seek to lighten or assuage the appalling message this
symphony imparts. Alma Mahler tells us that Mahler himself was so terrified
by the meaning of this work that at the first performance he conducted
it badly. Tilson Thomas does not follow Mahler. He conducts it superbly
and gives us a Sixth to compare with the very best on the market.
Yet maybe there was something that the audiences
at those performances last year took away that was relevant to what
was uppermost in their minds on those four nights; something that did
indeed help them "come to grips with chaos". It lies in the
nature of tragedy itself. This is Mahlerís "Tragic" Symphony
and Classical Tragedy, as mounted by the Greeks, depicts the struggle
by characters on stage against uncaring, unforgiving fate that in the
end destroys them. In the audience this produces identification and,
so the theory goes, a purgation of the emotions engendered. It
is this catharsis, this emotional bloodletting, that is the central
aim of classical tragedy and also the aim of Mahler in his Sixth. It
is surely this effect that can be relevant in times of great trial.
Rather than turn away and seek short-term comfort it is more worthwhile
to face someone elseís tragedy "one step removed" so that
you come to accept the inevitability of lifeís darkest side and so become
stronger. As with a play on a stage, so with a symphony on a platform.
It would be interesting to know if this feeling of
having been emotionally purged was the feeling of members of
the audiences in San Francisco last September after these performances.
If that were so they would certainly have been helped to come to grips
with chaos and in one of the oldest ways known to creative art and human
history. This is why I maintain that the greatest performances of the
Sixth are the ones where the conductor seems to stand a step back from
the action. Where the listener hardly notices an interpretation
is taking place. The best interpretation is, as one great pianist recently
put it, no more noticeable than the salt and the pepper should be in
a great dish. This means not intervening too much, not forcing the music
into a radically different shape from the one that presents itself on
the page and thereby almost mimicking the idea of watching something
that isnít real - a drama being enacted. This is Tragedy, not Melodrama.
I certainly believe this is what lies behind Mahlerís stricter use of
the old classical symphonic form in this his first four movement, one
key symphony, complete with exposition repeat. This is his way of telling
conductor and audience that he has something much subtler in his mind;
a helping hand to enable the drama to be framed in the same way that
classical tragedy frames the actions of the mortals on stage buffeted
by fate. However it also demands that the conductor doesnít overlook
the extraordinary energy and vigour that is as much a part of this work
as the black hand of fate that wipes our hero out at the end. This must
be a symphony that seems to touch every base. How else can we appreciate
the magnitude of our heroís fall if we are not first shown from where
he has fallen? How else can we appreciate his loss if we are not shown
first what he had to lose? With some conductors you know they are waiting
for those hammers. With others you feel the catastrophe has already
happened before the opening bar of the first movement. But with the
best ones - Sanderling, Zander, Mitropoulos - to name three - you get
the broader picture, the light as well as the dark; life as well as
death. In all, Mahlerís Sixth should enhance life as well as deny it
and by so doing enrich our sense of what it is to live before denial
comes. "Live every day as though it was your last," Mahler
seems to tell us here.
Does Tilson Thomas deliver such a view? Overall I think
he does. Letís consider the slow movement first. In this recording itís
placed third in order, as it is in the critical edition. Tilson Thomas
is spacious here, two minutes slower than Thomas Sanderling or Michael
Gielen, for example, and there is about his delivery of the music a
real sense of nostalgic elegy, a looking back to a better time. Thomas
Sanderling opts for a cooler, more poised "song without words"
which, in the wider context of the whole work, is probably more appropriate
as it is closer to what Mahler asks for in his Andante marking.
But there is no doubting Tilson Thomas is convincing in his own way.
This is the one major part of the performance where I felt that he was
responding to contemporary events as there is a very deep and melancholy
feel especially to the withdrawn, intimate passages that is very moving.
The emotional climax of the movement shows another side altogether.
It has great stoicism, great dignity and a surprisingly optimistic tone.
The impression I have is that this has now become music of light not
dark, so making the arrival of the last movement that much more terrible.
It would be possible to use this movement to wallow in self pity but
whilst Tilson Thomas does seem to want to touch our feelings he still
maintains a discernible balance between head and heart that is impressive
both in itself and in the wider context.
Energy and weight combine in the opening march passage
of the first movement; a tempo approach to suit Mahlerís marking that
both carries forward thrust and downward force. Reconciling apparently
conflicting demands of tempo will always be a problem for conductors
in this movement but Tilson Thomas seems on top of the case. In this
he is unlike Barbirolli on EMI (CZS569349-2 coupled with Straussís Ein
Heldenleben or CZS767816-2 coupled with Straussís Metamorphosen)
who goes too slowly and Levi on Telarc (CD-80444) who goes too fast.
There is also a bitter taste to the woodwindsí sour contributions even
in the short interlude prior to the Alma Theme second subject. Right
the way through the superbly balanced sound allows these fine players
to cut through the texture. The Alma theme itself broadens, though somewhat
less than Michael Gielen in his recent recording on Hännsler (CD
93.029), but since the basic momentum has been forward moving it sits
perfectly in what is a near conventional sonata form exposition with
repeat. Indeed Tilson Thomas seems more than aware of the importance
of this symphonic imperative in the movement. The development shows
his grasp of the marchís true importance. Notice the real stress on
the percussion, precise and placed and with some arrogant swagger. Then
in the cowbell interlude the change in mood is well achieved but never
stops the action completely though he does take things to the limit.
We have only turned our backs on the press of events, you see, they
havenít stopped altogether; our attention has just been deflected. There
is some lovely detail here in woodwind and the high tremolo violin daubs
that the natural recording allows us to hear clearly. The recapitulation
then has a fierce inevitability, driving home the message with the Alma
theme recall prior to the coda really sung out. It is hard to imagine
a better first movement than this.
In the second movement notice the cracks of the timpani,
superbly balanced into the texture so that the uneven gait of the music
is with us all the time. From the first movement we have inherited that
bitter taste in the sour woodwind too. Then in the first trio it is
clear again that Tilson Thomas has studied the texture with a microscope
so that he can render the fearsomely complex rhythmic turns with a stunning
confidence that his orchestra seems to revel in. It is this awareness
of the rhythmic topography of the movement that so impresses here as
it does with Sanderling even though the latter is a touch more sinister
and bitter. The SFSO shows concentration of the highest order and is
a fine counterpart to the first movement. I suspect that the fact of
this being taken from "live" performances has helped in some
of the more daring effects.
There is a raw brutality to the timps crashing out
the fate rhythm in the opening bars of the last movement. Throughout,
Tilson Thomas is back in symphonic mode, the immense drama delivered
with stunning immediacy and impressive reach, but with a real sense
of the greater picture again. At no time does Tilson Thomasís grip on
where the music has been and where it is going falter. His orchestra
seem prepared to follow him into hell. In the final bars the timps just
fail to quite penetrate and the last pizzicato note is just too emphatic,
but these are small quibbles in a presentation of this extraordinary
music to round off a performance that immediately goes into the top
flight. The two hammer blows themselves are certainly distinctive but
they appear to be just cracks on a large bass drum thus, I think, somewhat
short-changing Mahlerís intentions, but Tilson Thomas is hardly alone
in that. In fact he seems to have gone for musical effect rather than
sound effect. Benjamin Zander always goes to great trouble to deliver
the best hammers as is shown in his IMP recording and will also, no
doubt, in his forthcoming Philharmonia version for Teldec.
I listened to this new recording in standard CD stereo
sound so I cannot comment on what it sounds like in "Surround Sound"
or two channel stereo, both of which are also available on this SACD
pressing. What I heard is rich and detailed with plenty of impact. There
is air around the instruments also but not so much that you lose them
in it. The feeling is of a good seat in the middle of the hall, on the
front row of the first balcony.
For those who prefer a more "hands on" approach
from their conductor, more salt, pepper and sugar in their dish, Rattle
on EMI (CDS7540472) might be your man. For those who want a "live"
experience that will leave you shattered try to hear Mitropoulos in
the NYPO broadcasts box though that is in mono and only available as
part of an expensive set. Benjamin Zander on IMP (DMCD 93) gives us
a formidable reading of the work but as this Boston Philharmonic version
is soon to be joined by a Philharmonia studio recording on Teldec perhaps
we should wait for that.
Much as I admire Tilson Thomas in this work my first
preference for this symphony remains with Thomas Sanderling and the
St. Petersburg Philharmonic (RS 953-0186). He is more volatile in the
first movement and brings out more essential energy in it also. He is
also slightly more "on the edge" in the scherzo where contrasts
are slightly sharper; the mood a touch more brittle. As I have said
above, under Sanderling the slow movement is more flowing than with
Tilson Thomas. It seems to go in one huge arc. But this was a studio
recording not made under the press of terrible events and Tilson Thomasís
version will always be remarkable for that. The last movement with its
even firmer basis in symphonic structure and its ability to keep looking
back to what has gone and so stitch the work together is also crucially
teeming with more life and incident under Sanderling. I also admire
the mechanistic, machine-like delivery of so much of it that pins it
to its time of composition and counterbalances the classical framing
Sanderling seems to recognise to an even greater extent than Tilson
Thomas does. Overall this is comparing excellence with excellence and
the fact that two contemporary conductors can make two great recordings
of Mahlerís tragic symphony is something we should celebrate. This new
Tilson Thomas recording may be easier for you to find also, so I recommend
This a Mahler Sixth Symphony with contemporary resonance
superbly played and recorded. It competes with the best.
for the nice, thorough review. I haven't heard the CD, but I was at
the concert of September 15 (after catching a flight home from Washington,DC,
where I was delayed a couple of days because of events).
I do want
to point out that the hammer blows were not "just cracks on a large
bass drum." There was a huge wooden box in the back corner of the
stage and a gloved musician wielded a huge sledgehammer to strike the
top of the box for the hammer blows. In the hall, the noise was quite
know how it turned out on the recording, but it shouldn't be written
off as "somewhat short-changing Mahler¹s intentions."
also Tony Duggan's Mahler pages