> Mahler Symphny 1 M Tilson Thomas [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1864-1911)
Symphony No.1 in D major (1884-8)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded "live" at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September 19-23, 2001
Hybrid SACD - playable on SACD and standard CD players
SFS MEDIA 8211936-0002-2 [56.21]


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This is the second release in Michael Tilson Thomasís new Mahler symphony cycle from San Francisco. It follows his recording of the Sixth Symphony earlier in 2002. I had some reservations about that performance, as you can read in my review of it. However, this First Symphony is far more recommendable. I think it must be said that there is much less that can "go wrong" for the conductor in this work. The intellectual and emotional challenges are less. Provided he has a first rate orchestra at his disposal and doesnít try to weigh down work with too much of lifeís later baggage what is very much a youthful work he should produce a satisfying version at least, and Tilson Thomas does far more than that. I admire especially the way he understands when to be serious and when not and in so doing he covers the multi-faceted nature of the piece and therefore takes in that youthful quality which I think so important. He never tries to paper over the cracks in what is quite an episodic piece either. Almost revelling in the inexperience of the way itís put together. He keeps tempi up in the faster sections, stressing energy, but in the more contemplative passages brings out the imagination of the young Mahler very well also. Just occasionally he cannot see a gallery without playing to it, as we shall see, but this symphony is robust enough to stand it.

The introduction to the first movement has just the right mixture of dream and clarity, the latter from some precise woodwind to disturb the old-world texture. This leads into a really jaunty and well-sprung delivery of the first subject "Wayfarer" song: a good example of Tilson Thomasís propensity to spring the rythms so well. I also liked the string slides at the start of the development section and the very precise stabs from the bass drum a little later well recorded. Touches like this involve the listener. At the climax of the movement Tilson Thomasís colouring of the music continues to be imaginative and overall there is just the right amount of rhetorical moulding leading to a joyous dash for the end. This latter is a mood continued into the second movement which is breezy and confident, stopping only for a very witty delivery of the Trio with the catch in the waltz rhythm beautifully pointed out.

In the third movement the double bass solo at the start for the "Bruder Martin" theme is far too well mannered and there is unfortunately nothing unusual in that. Most recordings and performances these days prettify it. You have to go back to conductors like Mitropoulos (Sony 62342) and Adler (Tahra TAH239240) to hear it played how I think Mahler intended. In his keynote lecture to the XIV Colorado Mahlerfest Donald Mitchell referred to how he had tried, and failed, to stop the principal double bass of one of the worldís great Mahler orchestras "beautifying that opening solo and thus stripping it of its intended character and above all of its power to shock." I agree with Donald Mitchell about this passage needing to deliver as much of its original "power to shock" and I long to hear modern performances where this is realised. Knowing what a perceptive and keenly attentive Mahlerian Tilson Thomas is I am still surprised he appears to fail to get the point of the solo like so many - or rather his principal player does. Tilson Thomas judges well the "Klezmer" passages a little later in the movement making the arrival of the other "Wayfarer" quote in the centre, warmly and affectionately phrased, contrast so well with it. So why not the double bass? I am sorry to press this point but it continues to perplex me why conductors cannot deliver what is needed. The return of the "Bruder Martin" march in the closing passage of the movement is distinguished by malevolent squawks from the clarinet and the distinction with which the deep brass play the counter theme. This latter contribution provides, for me, a moment of adolescent world-weariness that made me smile: a lovely touch matched only by the march music that seems to re-cross our path like something not too distant from the neighbourhood of Charles Ives. With this conductor on the rostrum, this is not such a fanciful notion.

The opening of the fourth movement is distinguished by some powerful brass playing well caught by the wide range of the sound recording. Tilson Thomas does hold back and coax out the big theme of the second subject more than he perhaps should but, as I wrote earlier, this symphony can stand quite a bit of such coaxing. Just as well really because this is the movement where he allows himself more of the kind of rubato and ritardars he would have learned by example from his mentor Leonard Bernstein - most notably in the coda where he rather "grandstands" unashamedly. Donít misunderstand me. It is thrilling to hear it played like this once in a while. But it does make me wish the decision had been taken by the producers to leave in the applause that must have greeted the close of any of the "live" performances from which this recording has been made. I think the end of the work as played like this would have sounded more appropriate with the sound of hands clapping after it. If you are going to make recordings "live" then why not include the audience as part of the performance?

The playing of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is sharp, alert, colourful and committed. The brass is especially distinguished with attack and depth. The sound recording does have a wide dynamic range so a few volume adjustments will be necessary, but nothing too troublesome, I think. Among modern recordings this one certainly deserves consideration, but this is a very crowded field. Set against Horenstein (Unicorn UKCD2012), Walter (Sony SM2K 64447) and Kubelik (DG 449 735-2GOR) among older versions and Bernstein (DG 431 036-2), Haitink (Philips 420 936-2) and Boulez (DG 289 459 610-2) among more recent versions, it is hard to justify recommending it as a "must have". Fine though it is with some really imaginative touches, though.

If you fancy a brand new Mahler First for your collection, this is certainly one to consider. For those planning to collect the whole Tilson Thomas cycle there need be no worries at all.

Tony Duggan

See Tony Duggan's Comparative review of Mahler 1 recordings


Online purchase www.shopsfsymphony.org

Distribution in North America by Delos Records.

Distribution outside North America by Avie Records avie@musicco.f9.co.uk

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