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Mahler: Symphony No 5 / Tilson Thomas, San Francisco So

Release Date: 10/10/2006 
Label:  San Francisco Symphony   Catalog #: 12   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


Just as an earlier Fifth Symphony had announced the beginning of a revolution in sound and structure, Michael Tilson Thomas has captured the sense of renouncing the past that Mahler’s Fifth betokens; this time, however, it’s personal: Mahler wasn’t so much declaring an end to Romanticism as waving good-bye to the mythic, hero-obsessed world of his “Wunderhorn” symphonies in favor of a stripped-down, forward-looking dynamic. I should declare up front that this recording simply sounds great: seldom have performance and production complemented each other to such a splendid degree (as usual, please consult Andrew
Read more Quint’s review for more details).

The first movement finds MTT alternating between a stern, clipped opening theme and a mournful, subdued funeral march. The contrast is quite stark, with the second theme seeming almost to plead for mercy from the first. The strings are outstanding in this movement, especially the cellos, whose lamenting tone in the second subject has seldom sounded so heartfelt (inner voice clarity is exemplary throughout the performance). The sudden acceleration of the first Trio is accomplished without undue haste, as if the lamentation has simply become that much more intense, that much closer to despair. The brass blares out its chorale-like answer to this special pleading, and we’re back to the beginning, but this time with drier eyes. The timpani version of the opening fanfare signals the modulation to the second Trio, which seems to suggest an almost seductive kind of plea—Tilson Thomas brings out the pathetic character of this section by slowing quite effectively, leading to a collapse that is devastating in its finality. After the coda, he opts for a decisive, emphatic final note.

The second movement erupts without a pause, startling us out of whatever reverie the first movement may have lulled us into (and neatly eliding the two movements into part one of Mahler’s tri-partite conception). Tilson Thomas accomplishes Mahler’s directives for turbulence and vehemence through exceptionally clear thematic development—it is the themes that are in conflict, not the performers. The echo of the first movement funeral march is accompanied by playing of the utmost refinement—one marvels yet again at the tonal beauty of this orchestra. The cellos of the “lamenting” theme play as one in strains of autumnal gold, leading to carping from the rest of the orchestra. The modulations to the major-mode are poignantly sweet, and then the strangely confident mini-march in A? Major produces yet another collapse, leading us into the recapitulation, with its reversion to the combat of the opening. The chorale that signals the transition to the coda is, indeed, a “vision of paradise.”

One facet of Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of this symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic (DVD, 27:1) that was especially notable was the reassignment of the first horn-player to the front of the stage, making the obbligato literally a solo; Abbado, in his Lucerne Festival DVD (29:1), simply instructed the principal to stand up. Michael Steinberg, in the booklet note adapted from his original program note, describes the nature of the obbligato part as the principal horn “detaching” itself from the initial fanfare of four horns, and that is what we hear: the solo horn sounds from the center of the orchestra, and is certainly given “center stage” in that sense, wherever he might actually have been during the performance (I assume the solo is performed by Robert Ward, listed as acting principal horn in the orchestra’s roster, though the booklet fails to single him out for credit).

This is, for the most part, an extremely amiable and leisurely Scherzo (clocking in at an expansive 19:12); described by Steinberg as “country music, by turns ebullient, nostalgic, and a mite parodistic,” that indeed neatly sums up this performance—all three elements are kept in balance, with the overall feeling suggesting a complete contrast to the two preceding movements (and further reinforcing the uniqueness of this part two).

Steinberg suggests that the Adagietto “convey[s] the essence of Mahler’s heartache,” apparently calling into question the currently fashionable contention (by Kaplan, among others, based on the authority of Willem Mengelberg) that this movement represents a love note to Alma. That latter suggestion seems too simple on the face of it, since, as Steinberg notes, the movement is “darker” than the sunny Scherzo, and there are certainly suggestions of storm clouds on the horizon. It would seem that extra-musical considerations can be employed to bolster either argument, since even at this early stage there were always the ingredients for a tempestuous relationship between Gustav and Alma. Tilson Thomas would seem to agree with Steinberg: though beginning delicately in warmth, the darker elements assert themselves before long; in addition, MTT takes almost 11 minutes for a movement conducted, during Mahler’s lifetime, at between seven and nine minutes’ duration. Once again, parallels with Leonard Bernstein are appropriate, since it was his heart-tugging interpretation of the lugubrious aspects of this movement that gave it a more melancholy demeanor for many first-time listeners.

Such controversy for such a short movement! My own feeling is that the key is in the title: when stretched to such lengths as Bernstein, Scherchen, Karajan, and now Tilson Thomas have managed to do, this “brief” movement approaches the length of the opening funeral march, and I doubt that that was Mahler’s intent. Though there is faultless musicianship on display, this interpretation approaches stasis, and the passionate emotion that is generated is also somewhat dissipated. I think this movement mars the structure of the whole symphony, and weighs it down unduly just as it prepares to take off.

The horn call that announces the finale comes just as the last strains of the Adagietto are dying out, and Tilson Thomas’s idea to begin the second movement attacca is justified, as this third part now parallels the first. In addition, the finale of the Seventh Symphony is foreshadowed by the fugato structure Mahler employed here, and just as in the ritornellos of the Seventh, it is ingeniously developed. The geniality of the Scherzo returns and the clouds of sadness that darkened the Adagietto are banished as the music generates good feeling and energy.

My response to this performance is positive, for the most part, but my reservations concerning the Adagietto remain. This symphony seems to be a hard piece to get “right” (though that could be said about several of Mahler’s symphonies—or all of them!); Benjamin Zander’s performance on Telarc is the closest I know. Ideally, I would splice the magical Adagietto from Zander’s performance into this otherwise splendid-sounding recording. Instrumental execution and sound production cannot be faulted, and as always with this series, the packaging is first-rate. I will need to listen many more times to this performance, uninterrupted by the exigencies of reviewing, to gain a deeper understanding of Tilson Thomas’s interpretation; as with all things of value, it will be time well spent.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Vienna, Austria 
Venue:  Live  Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA 
Length: 73 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Notes: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA (09/28/2005 - 10/02/2005) 

Customer Reviews

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 Mahler Symphonies # 1, , # 5 August 16, 2012 By Ron Berg (San Mateo, CA) See All My Reviews "These two symphonies should be in everyone'e music collection as they are played and c0nducted very well. Everybody I have given them to for gifts are completly amazed and happy with what they heard." Report Abuse
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