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Gustav MAHLER (1869-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94)
Isabel Bayrakdarian (sop)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded live at Davies Symphony hall, San Francisco, June 23-26, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0006-2 [23’19+65’15]

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Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle continues apace, and with mixed critical responses ranging from very favourable (No. 6) to cool (No. 3). I have to admit at the outset to feeling slightly ambivalent about this latest instalment. On a purely objective, technical level, there is a great deal to admire. The orchestral playing is quite phenomenal, whether it’s piercingly accurate woodwind solos, perfectly tuned brass chords or strings that appear to play with such precision as to be ‘as one’. The recorded sound is also amazing, with a depth and detail that leave many other versions in the shade. But as anyone who loves Mahler knows, this is simply not enough. In the greatest performances and recordings you share an epic journey that leaves you wrung dry by the end but feeling, in a cathartic sense, better for the experience. I’m afraid, at the end of the day, I simply did not get this from these discs.

Thomas’s treatment of the first movement is one of the sticking blocks. He has drilled his orchestra to such a degree that they can obviously follow his every gear change, but his wilful and somewhat irritating use of rubato ultimately robs the music of its sense of flow and cumulative power. We know that Thomas comes from the Bernstein school of Mahler conducting, where a sense of vivid drama and theatrical spectacle often take precedence over structural clarity, but Bernstein’s charisma usually ensured he pulled it off. Here, the stop-start, episodic nature of the conducting emerges as plodding and rather mannered (try the big climactic passage, track 1, 15’40). One only has to turn to Klemperer’s famous 1962 account to understand that keeping the tempo flowing does not mean details have to be missed, and his astonishingly swift, grittily direct approach gives the movement momentum, direction and power. There is, unbelievably, nearly nine minutes difference overall in the two performances, and half of that is due to this first movement. I don’t tend to clock watch, but I do feel Mahler conducting over the years has become generally slower, not always to the benefit of the music. On the other hand, if inspiration and concentration levels are high enough, it can work, as in Simon Rattle’s CBSO performance, which comes in with timings similar to Tilson Thomas. Indeed, Rattle is possibly Thomas’s nearest counterpart (at least in my collection) yet I never felt the frisson in San Francisco that I feel in Birmingham.

The inner movements do fare better. Whilst I still find the basic pulse of the Minuet a little cumbersome, the strings are so luminous and featherlight as to make amends. There is also some razor-sharp brass playing in the trio. One does leave this lovely little movement with a distinct air of what Mahler referred to as ‘a memory – a shaft of sunlight from out of the life of this hero’.

The third movement, a droll C minor scherzo in waltz tempo, is also superbly done. The orchestra digs deep, producing trenchant sounds that capture the many facets of the music. Here is Mahler’s ‘dance of life’ encapsulated, with sinister brass sitting alongside a joyful trio and sentimental close harmony trumpets, St. Antony’s restless moto perpetuo underpinning everything.

The ‘Urlicht’ fourth movement, which correctly follows on without a break, is worthy of attention for the raptly intense singing of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, one of the artists of the moment, and for those beautifully weighted brass chorale chords. Of course, competition is fierce, with Janet Baker (Rattle) and Hilda Rössl-Majdan (Klemperer) providing just as much text insight and quality of tone. But Lieberson’s singing is undoubtedly up there with the best, and nobody will be disappointed with her contribution to this version.

The massive finale returns us to the ‘curate’s egg’ situation. The famous ‘cry of disgust’ opening is overwhelming in its impact, both in terms of playing and recording. Also well handled are the spatial effects, with off-stage instruments sounding realistically distant but in a clear acoustic relation to the full orchestra, something not always easy for the conductor or engineers to bring off. Once again, individual touches are impressive; one has to marvel at the principal trumpet’s crystal clear top c which pings through the texture at 9’52. One could also fairly argue that Tilson Thomas is correctly observing Mahler’s plethora of tempo and phrase markings throughout the symphony, but in this movement, as in the first, this listener found some of the gear changes emerging as agogic distortions that impede the full surge of the music. I feel Rattle and Klemperer both have the bigger picture in mind, and turning back to them also highlighted their own orchestras’ superb playing. There is not much to choose in the choral contributions, but suffice it to say that the vintage, Pitz-trained Philharmonia chorus are pretty much unbeatable, with superb grading of dynamics and a welter of unforced tone where required. The peroration in this famous EMI recording is simply overwhelming (as indeed is the Rattle) and I suppose it’s down to that elusive ‘x factor’, but the San Francisco version didn’t get my spine tingling in quite the same way.

The packaging is attractive, with typically illuminating notes by Michael Steinberg, though the track listing on the back is wrong for disc 2. If you are collecting this cycle, don’t let me put you off – remember, much of this is real hair-splitting. The audience is commendably quiet – in fact there is more shuffling and extraneous noise from Klemperer’s studio forces! But bear this in mind; the great old man’s recording is now part of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, re-mastered and sounding simply awesome. It is on one disc (the only one-disc Resurrection?) and is mid-price. [review] [purchase]For me, there is no contest.

Tony Haywood

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