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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
CD 1
Symphony No. 10 in F Sharp major. Adagio* [27:41]
Symphony No. 8 in E Flat major, Part I [23:06]
CD 2
Symphony No. 8 in E Flat major, Part II [60:30]
Magna Peccatrix: Erin Wall (soprano); Una Poenitentium: Elza van den Heever (soprano); Mater Gloriosa: Laura Claycomb (soprano); Mulier Samaritana: Katarina Karnéus (mezzo); Maria Aegyptica: Yvonne Naef (mezzo); Doctor Marianus: Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor); Pater Ecstaticus: Quinn Kelsey (baritone); Pater Profundus: James Morris (bass)
San Francisco Symphony Chorus; Pacific Boychoir; San Francisco Girl’s Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 19-23 November 2008; *6-8 April 2006. DSD
German text, English and French translations included.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0021-2 [51:32 + 60:30]
Experience Classicsonline

Like most Mahler symphony cycles Michael Tilson Thomas’s intégrale reaches its conclusion with the Eighth. Probably because my shelves already contain an indecently large collection of Mahler symphony recordings, previous issues in this cycle have not come my way so I was keen to sample it, even at this late stage. As has been the case with previous issues, I believe, the recordings originate in concert performances in the orchestra’s home hall.

Tilson Thomas’s Eighth is just too long to be fitted onto one disc so we’re given a significant bonus in the shape of the Adagio from Mahler’s incomplete Tenth Symphony. Whilst I admire this performance - indeed, because I admire it - I’m left with a sense of what might have been. I acknowledge the arguments against performing one of the several performing editions of the full score, in particular the not insignificant one that Mahler would probably have revised what he left us of the Tenth. That may be true but, writing elsewhere, Michael Steinberg has made the very valid observation that, had he lived to conduct them, Mahler would almost certainly have revised both the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. It seems to me, however, that the clinching argument is that the Tenth expands our knowledge and appreciation of Mahler. I think that the Adagio of the Ninth is one of the greatest symphonic movements I know but I’m convinced that I acquired a better understanding of it once I’d heard the corresponding movement in Deryck Cooke’s performing edition of the Tenth. I can only presume that Tilson Thomas aligns himself with the nay-sayers when it comes to the Tenth and I think that’s a great pity.

On the evidence of this account of the Tenth’s adagio I suspect he could have given us - and still could, if the spirit moves him - a very fine recording of Cooke’s edition. His reading of this adagio is superbly played and beautifully controlled. The San Francisco strings cover themselves in glory with some super-fine playing and the horns match them for excellence. In the middle of the movement there’s a great deal of refined, delicate playing and here the woodwind choir distinguishes itself. Overall it’s a rich performance - rich in feeling and rich in sound - but it’s not too rich and where Mahler’s writing is more astringent the SFSO also deliver. Tilson Thomas paces the music with great understanding. Although much of the music is subdued and suffused with longing, the grinding climax, when it arrives (20:10) is frightening in its intensity. This is a considerable account of the Adagio and I do hope that the conductor will change his mind and, at some future date, give us a recording of the full Cooke edition with his splendid orchestra.

It’s asking almost the impossible to expect engineers to capture the colossal Eighth for domestic listening but several teams have succeeded pretty well over the years, not least the Decca engineers for Solti and the EMI team who captured Sir Simon Rattle’s live account in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. To that list we should add those responsible for this new recording. The sound is full, detailed and impressive. I listened in conventional CD mode; I would imagine the sound is even more impressive when played as an SACD. The well produced booklet includes a panoramic shot of the performers on stage. The seven principal soloists are to right and left of the podium and the recording reports them nicely in the centre of the soundstage. The choirs form a U shape behind and around the orchestra. And one other feature is very noticeable: Tilson Thomas divides his fiddles left and right. That doesn’t make much difference in the often-tumultuous Part I but it pays huge dividends in Part II, not least at the start.

The obvious comparison to make is with the Rattle recording, since that too is a live version, taken from concert performances in 2004. Tony Duggan and I both reviewed this version when it appeared. I was very taken with it, though Tony had some reservations, placing it in his “fascinating but flawed” category. Both the Rattle and Tilson Thomas accounts are excellently engineered. However, one not insignificant difference lies in the sizes of the respective choirs. The performing space at Symphony Hall Birmingham allowed Rattle to field a much larger chorus; a contemporary press review of the concert indicated there were some 540 singers involved. I doubt Davies Hall had room for such a throng. Some 174 adult singers are listed in the booklet and from the photo I’d judge there were about seventy or eighty young choristers as well. Still, as they say, size isn’t everything and the San Francisco choirs sing extremely well for Tilson Thomas and are well recorded by the engineers.

The adult choir acquits itself very well indeed, projecting the tumultuous passages of Part I strongly and often producing refined singing in Part II. But I hope the adult singers won’t mind if I single out for special mention the members of the children’s chorus, who are split left and right on either side. They sing with splendid assurance throughout the work. The fresh innocence of their singing is a delight in Part II but they’re also well able to deliver exuberantly lusty tone when Mahler calls for it. One contribution to savour is the passage in Part II that begins at cue 155 (CD2, track 9 at 4:38) and in particular their lusty downward glissando a few moments later (5:02).

Both conductors have strong teams of female soloists. Indeed, it would be invidious to express a preference for one team over the other. Tilson Thomas has some fine singers at his disposal and I was particularly taken with the contributions of Erin Wall - a singer new to me - and Katarina Karnéus. At the end of Part I Miss Wall and Elza van den Heever, singing in unison, soar majestically and thrillingly over the whole ensemble. Unfortunately, I don’t think Tilson Thomas is as well served by his male soloists. The baritone’s role is the least prominent. Quinn Kelsey sounds somewhat effortful in his ‘Ewiger Wonnebrand’ solo; he seems to be trying too hard. David Wilson-Johnson (for Rattle) is better but he too seems to strain for emphasis. Both are put in the shade by the magnificent John Shirley-Quirk on the famous Solti studio recording (Decca). To my ears James Morris is a grievous disappointment in his Pater Profundus solo. The notes are all there, to be sure, but his tone strikes me as very harsh and completely uningratiating. The rounder, fuller tone of John Relyea (Rattle) is much to be preferred. Anthony Dean Griffey is inconsistent. He sings well in Part I and does some good things in Part II also but Mahler’s cruelly demanding tessitura finds him wanting several times in the exposed Doctor Marianus solos. I prefer Jon Villars on the Rattle set.

Both Rattle and Tilson Thomas have excellent orchestras at their disposal. Time and again in listening to this new recording I found myself savouring the finesse and beauty of tone that the SFSO produce. They are often formidably impressive in Part I but it’s in the more subtle stretches of Part II that they really show their mettle. The long orchestral introduction to Part II is beautifully played. The sound is intense and highly atmospheric with some super-fine quiet playing. One notices that the lines are consistently full and sustained and the strings and horns make especially distinguished contributions to this lengthy section. It’s in Part II that Tilson Thomas’s left/right division of his violins really pays off.

If the orchestra is especially impressive in the more sensitive stretches of this huge score then I think the same applies to Tilson Thomas’s direction of the symphony as a whole. It seems to me that he’s particularly successful in unfolding Mahler’s more delicate and/or lyrical passages. That’s not to say that he doesn’t handle the more ‘public’ moments of the score well, for he does. He controls the tumultuous passages of Part I impressively and the performance is exciting - one has the impression that he’s a little less impulsive than Rattle in such stretches - and he builds the conclusion to Part II very convincingly without ever going over the top. However, the delicacy with which he handles the Angels section in Part II is a delight and he’s also very good at conveying the prayerful aspect of the more reflective passages in Part I. It seems clear that he inspires everyone on the platform and he’s in command of this complex and many-layered score 
I’m a trifle perplexed by a couple of small but not insignificant events in Part II. There’s a discernable gap of some three seconds before track 10 begins. This is the moment that Mater Gloriosa - here nicely recorded at a distance - sings “Komm! Komm!” (cue 172). Admittedly there’s a double bar line in the score at this point but I can’t recall hearing any other conductor make such a deliberate break at this point - Rattle certainly doesn’t. I don’t know whether this is an editing slip or an interpretative gesture by the conductor but I find that it jars and it slightly mars what should be a magical entry. And there’s a curious moment a little further on, at cue 213, where the whole choir proclaims “Alles Vergängliche”, singing fortissimo (track 12, 3:40). In the bar immediately before this the soprano and alto sections of Choir II have a sustained note marked molto crescendo. In this performance Tilson Thomas cuts off all the sound at the end of the bar except for this sustained note, which is held right until the delayed fortissimo entry. It results in a most odd effect - at first I thought some singers had made a mistake but now I’m sure it’s deliberate. I quickly checked a few other recordings - Rattle, Solti, Tennstedt (EMI) - and the crescendo is there but not the cut-off. I can’t see that this gesture is justified in the score and I have to say, respectfully, that I think this is a miscalculation. Both of these points are just incidents in a performance lasting over eighty minutes and so I don’t want to make too much of them but the fact remains that both occur at key points in the score. 

However, it would be very wrong to leave comment on this recording on a negative note. There’s a great deal to enjoy and admire in this performance. After finishing my listening I looked at the reviews of previous issues in the cycle by some of my colleagues and I see that reactions have been mixed. However, despite some imperfections noted above, I think it would be fair to conclude that with this Eighth Tilson Thomas concludes his cycle impressively.  
I often comment on the notes accompanying a CD because I think this is an important part of the package. On this occasion I think it’s particularly appropriate so to do. The notes are by Michael Steinberg, the distinguished American critic and writer on music, whose excellent and perceptive notes have adorned so many recordings down the years. Sadly, there will be no more of these for I read the news of his death at the age of eighty just a few days after these CDs arrived for review. As this is the first release in Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle to have come my way I don’t know if he wrote the notes for all the previous issues but if, as I suspect, he did then it’s fitting that he should have authored the notes for the last release in the cycle. The essay accompanying this set is characteristically informed, insightful and interesting. He was, in my humble opinion, one of the finest writers on music of his generation and it’s a cause for regret that music lovers will read no more new sets of notes bearing his name.

Well performed, expertly engineered and very well presented, this set is a fine conclusion to Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle. Those who have been collecting it will need no urging to acquire it and even if you don’t have the previous issues this is a version of Mahler’s Eighth that’s well worth adding to your collection.

John Quinn

The Tilson Thomas Mahler cycle on MusicWeb International

Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6
Symphony No. 7
Symphony No. 9
Das Lied von der Erde
Das klagende Lied
 
 


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