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
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,
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.
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