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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection) (1903) [88.02]
Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, June 2004
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0006-2 [23.19 + 54.43]

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Time, which has a way of sneaking up on all of us, has transformed erstwhile Wunderkind Michael Tilson Thomas into a high-profile podium veteran. That Boston Symphony concert which thrust him into prominence, when he took over from a suddenly ill William Steinberg, was in 1969 - nearly forty years ago! If we didn't notice, perhaps it was because he hasn't always recorded much. Thomas's permanent affiliations with world-class orchestras were only intermittent - the major record outfits didn't consider the worthy, hard-working Buffalo Philharmonic enough of a draw, save in Gershwin and the like. But I suspect that the conductor also kept a relatively low profile by choice, only bringing individual projects that "spoke" to him - scores by Tchaikovsky, by Debussy, by Ruggles - into the recording studio, resisting the temptation to crank out repertoire works in batches, as the majors used to prefer. His chamber-scaled Beethoven symphony cycle for CBS (now Sony) was an exception. So is his current project, a Mahler symphony series recorded in concert with his San Francisco Symphony and distributed on the orchestra's own label.

On first hearing, this Resurrection is promising. The recorded sound, first of all, makes an immediate impact, not just in the big climaxes - which "breathe" quite nicely - but in the subtler details: woodwind doublings register as daubs of color within a clear, resiny string presence, with a soupçon of ambience enhancing the well-defined instrumental images. The "layering" of onstage and offstage instruments in the Finale sounds unusually clear and natural.

In the performance's best moments, Thomas gets his players to project their parts with fresh intensity. Every note of the opening bass flourishes is crisply, attentively articulated, avoiding any hint of routine; similarly, the double-dotted rhythms in the development are carefully and precisely sculpted. The moderately paced scherzo has a nice whirling quality and a buoyant one-in-a-bar swing. In the Finale, I rather liked the strings' alert observation of accents, giving some shape to the bass ostinati at 0:21 and the tremolos at 6:02 and following.

But Thomas's attention to detail isn't always convincing. He observes all the printed markings in the first movement's C major theme (2:44), yet it emerges as tentative and unfeeling; and those sculpted double-dottings later on hold back the music's forward impulse. The Andante occasionally suggests lilting grace, but it mostly just sits inertly, save when the conductor applies "expressive" tenutos that sound right in the tune but break the flow of the counter-themes; the triplet episodes are stolid. In the scherzo, the protracted ritards at each return of the main motif become tiresome and predictable. In short, the performance, at least in the first three movements, keeps hitting dead spots.

Things improve after the singing starts. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings Urlicht eloquently, though hers is strictly speaking the wrong "instrument," a lyric mezzo where an earth-mother contralto is called for. (Do clarinettists play the Mozart horn concerti?) The Finale's opening outburst is powerful, the death-march (after a prolonged percussion crescendo) springy and thrusting. The first choral invocation is unduly drawn out, but the blend is good - the tenors don't stick out, as they sometimes can - and, with the engineers' connivance, Isabel Bayrakdarian's soprano rises out of the chorus, as the composer requested, more effectively than I've ever heard before. The interplay of melodic strands in the orchestral interludes is lovely; the solo voices are stunningly matched in their duet; and - once the fugal choral entries settle into a tempo - the final build-up is impressive.

The orchestra is, frankly, disappointing. A full-bodied core of brass sound makes for solid, ringy tuttis. But the horns sound uncharacteristically deadpan and subdued elsewhere, even where they should draw the ear, as in their premonition of the march theme (first movement, 13:34). The strings, in general, are wan and diffuse. The violins' pianissimos are too soft in absolute terms - the low ends of their moving passages in the scherzo simply disappear - but even their crescendos lack presence and substance. The orchestra's playing isn't as tidy on their previous recording, under Herbert Blomstedt (Decca), but their warm (but not indiscriminately luscious!) ensemble sonority there, with its well-focused strings and vivid shafts of woodwind and horn color, stands as a rebuke to this paler sound.

On the basis of this Resurrection - the only instalment I've heard of the SFSO cycle - and his Klagende Lied for RCA Red Seal, I'm not convinced that Thomas, a onetime Bernstein protégé, has inherited his former mentor's identification with this composer, nor are his flashes of insightful detail enough to add up to a consistently absorbing performance. One wishes the San Francisco Symphony success with their record label, but I hope everyone concerned can do better than this.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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