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Gustav MAHLER (1864-1911)
Symphony No.4 in G major (1899-1901)
Laura Claycomb (Soprano)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded "live" at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 24-28 September 2003
Hybrid SACD - playable on SACD and standard CD players
SFS MEDIA 821936-0004-2 [62.28]


If Donald Rumsfeld were a Mahlerite he would hate this recording of the Fourth Symphony. The third movement had barely been underway two minutes when I had written in my notes "Old Europe" which, as you may know, is something of a bête noire for Mr. R. Itís all in the strings. Especially in the third movement there is a marked degree of portamenti or sliding between the notes in phrases that you associate with a recording made over sixty years ago from "old Europe". Iím not complaining. Quite the opposite, in fact. Donít think that what you are going to hear will distract you or grate in any way as this practice can when taken to the extreme. Tilson Thomas has asked for and been given by his string players just enough of that "old world" phrasing to make this movement a really moving and distinctive experience, getting right to the warm heart of the movement and therefore the symphony and bringing memories of Walter and Mengelberg flooding back. Itís a fine achievement and a welcome antidote to some of the squeaky-clean, machine-tooled Mahler recordings I hear so often and which make me long for recordings made twenty or thirty years ago or more. The overall tempo for the movement is slow, slower than many hitherto favourite versions, but it never drags. Momentum never flags; such is the attention to detail, to springing the underlying rhythms and the marking of the nodal points. Though you would never know it, this CD is the result of "live" performances so perhaps the experience of performing the movement in one go is paying dividends.

Tilson Thomas delineates so well the two aspects of Mahlerís "once upon a time" world making up the first movementís symphonic argument. Mahler was probably describing in music his own bright-sky exhilaration at arriving as the conquering hero in Vienna. However he uses a spiky, unsettled development of the expositionís more dreamy and laid-back material to vary the course of the movement. Tilson Thomas grasps this aspect admirably. The ability to "read" a movementís topography in this way is so often the sign of a fine Mahler conductor. There is a sense of contented repose to be found in the exposition and then a full exploitation of the orchestraís fine woodwind and brass players to spice up the development. These players are heard to excellent effect in what is a superb sound balance. All comes to a perfectly judged resolution at the climax of the development where the emergence of the trumpet solo, prefiguring the opening of the Fifth Symphony, makes its mark. Crucially this is from within the texture. Tilson Thomas and his engineers are careful not to let this trumpet moment protrude too much. In the later stages the string phrasing, the "old world" slides that will become so much a part of the third movement, make their first real appearance and are deeply satisfying.

The second movement accentuates the mood of the firstís development with great scope given to the weird violin solo and the cluckings of the woodwind players who are again heard to fine effect in the recording. The third movement stresses the contemplative side of the symphony. All that is then needed to complete the story of this wonderful work is an adroit performance of the final movement to bring it all to final rest. So much depends on the delivery of the soprano soloist who must give a childís view of heaven and so must sound young. I am too much of a gentleman to ask Laura Claycombís age but I think I can safely say she fits the bill admirably, as does her feisty "daddyís girl" delivery. For his part Tilson Thomas drives the sleigh bell interludes with a terrific snap. In this he keeps in our minds, right to the end, the bipolar element that exists in even this most amiable of Mahlerís symphonies.

The playing of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is exemplary throughout and the recording rich and detailed. There have been so many fine recordings of this work over the years - Mengelberg, Kletzki, Horenstein, Szell, Maazel - that there are many that can be recommended to collectors to last them a lifetime. This latest one is certainly now among them and those collecting Tilson Thomasís developing Mahler cycle can be assured that this is a worthy successor, maybe even the best of the cycle so far. If you have room for another Fourth that is well-recorded and well played, and with that striking sense of "old Europe" in the third movement, this is certainly one to consider seriously in a crowded field. Just donít send a copy to the Pentagon.

Tilson Thomas and the SFSO in Mahler go from strength to strength with a Fourth from the grand tradition.

Tony Duggan

see Tony Duggans Mahler pages

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