Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on standard DVD
1. Michael Tilson Thomas – “Gustav Mahler: Origins”
2. A performance of the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler
1. Episode Two – “Gustav Mahler: Legacy”
2. Michael Tilson Thomas – A Mahler Journey
R E V I E W:
Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 5:
Symphony No. 7:
Symphony No. 9:
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Michael Tilson Thomas, cond; Thomas Hampson (bar); San Francisco SO
SFS MEDIA 8 21936-0042-9-6 (2 Blu-ray discs: 227:00); 8 21936-0041-9-7 (2 DVDs: 227:00) Live: San Francisco 9/2009
Mahler: Origins and Legacy
This two-disc set comprises a special edition of the MTT/SFSO
series, in this case devoted to a comprehensive video biography of Mahler accompanied by concert performances of the works listed above. Michael Tilson Thomas has chosen to crown the much-praised Mahler Project with this video presentation in commemoration of the twin anniversaries of Mahler’s birth and death. As before in the series, the biographical programs, herein titled
Mahler: Origins and Legacy
, serve to place the concert performances in context. This program, however, differs from the others in the scope of the background material and in the number of pieces featured in the concert portion.
There are two things that set the documentaries in this series apart from most garden-variety biographies: the location filming, which often takes the viewer to places inaccessible otherwise, and the musical insights of Michael Tilson Thomas. In several of the programs, MTT provides a personal connection to the composer or the composition under consideration; in this case, it was hearing
Das Lied von der Erde
at the age of 13, and particularly “Der Abschied,” whose evocation of loneliness and longing made a strong impression on the adolescent proto-conductor. There follow personal observations on their own “Mahler moments” from architect Frank Gehry, actor Patrick Stewart, and musicians Susan Graham and Yo-Yo Ma.
The rest of the documentary program follows Mahler’s life from its beginnings in Bohemia to the various opera posts that led inevitably to Vienna and success, and then the succession of tragedies that drove the composer to newer pastures in the New World, and his subsequent dissolution and death. The location filming provides Tilson Thomas with the opportunity to make the first of several insightful analyses: The layout of Jihlava, Mahler’s Iglau, provides a sort of map to the First Symphony, which is then explicated in detail. While the impact of Mahler’s youthful environment on his music has been thoroughly explored, the images and sonic goulash from which Mahler drew inspiration are fresh and interesting as presented here. For instance, the traditional
Song of the Postillion
appears as the main theme in the second movement of the First Symphony, while the well-known epigraph “death march in the manner of Callot” for the third movement is also a reference to the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who expected that his readers would understand that his writings were “fantasy pieces in the manner of Callot,” referring to Jacques Callot, the Baroque print-maker and caricaturist.
From these early threads, Tilson Thomas examines various individual movements from the symphonies to illuminate Mahler’s progressive technique. The Scherzo of No. 7 begins in close-up with its gloss on “Ablösung im Sommer” (in an excerpt sung by Thomas Hampson), but widens its perspective first to a hunt on horseback, and then to the more ethereal realm evoked by the distant posthorn. The Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony is related to “Liebst du um Schönheit” as a love letter to Alma and to “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” its musical cousin. The Scherzo of the Seventh Symphony finds Mahler in a “zany” mood, with “splutters of instruments playing outside their comfort zones.”
of 1907, we follow Mahler first to New York, and then back to his beloved mountains and the last of his composing
in Toblach. Tilson Thomas explores the “turn” motive, a musically ambiguous phrase found in several of Mahler’s works, and thereby connects the first of the
songs to “Der Abschied” as well as to the final moments of the finale of the Ninth Symphony. This last is presented in a beautifully staged montage, as Thomas Hampson sings, very slowly, the opening phrases of the song as the last bars of the symphony are heard simultaneously. In a sort of coda, Mahler’s last work, the unfinished Tenth, is related through its orchestral scream on A to the otherworldly A that opens the First Symphony, coming full circle again. The documentary ends with Tilson Thomas leaving roses at the foot of Mahler’s grave.
The concert disc is really two concerts. The first is a complete performance of the First Symphony. There is remarkably little difference between this new performance and the one recorded in 2001 and issued as the second installment of the Mahler Project. The first movement is all bloom and song; the second communicates youthful swagger as well as graceful lilt. The funeral march captures perfectly all of Mahler’s crazy amalgam of sharp satire, schmaltzy nostalgia, and true tenderness, and the finale makes its thunderous entrance, eventually knitting the whole thing together in a blaze of triumph. It’s especially thrilling to see the eight horns standing as they contend with the trumpets for dominance. Throughout, the sound is of the floorboard-shaking variety. I give the edge to the Blu-ray, which is simply amazing, but the DVD is as impressive as the sound on Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival recording on EuroArts.
The second concert consists of the
songs and the three “bleeding chunks” in lieu of a complete symphony. The conductor gives a brief introduction from the podium before each performance. Hampson’s performance of the
songs is presumably the same one included in the recent SFSO CD of Mahler’s orchestral songs (
34:3), having been taped in September of 2009. Watching this supremely gifted Mahlerian is an added attraction, as is the extremely detailed and full-bodied sound on the Blu-ray disc.
The Adagietto is arguably an appropriate choice on its own, having been performed separately countless times. Tilson Thomas’s performance, slightly longer than the one on his SFSO CD, works well as a stand-alone piece, the moderate but fluid pace adding to its gravitas. The Seventh Symphony is one of Mahler’s most congenial works for MTT, with two outstanding CDs to his credit. The performance of the Scherzo here is grotesque, funny, and poignant by turns, and the sound production is even more impressive than the SFS Media SACD.
Tilson Thomas characterizes the Rondo-Burleske of the Ninth Symphony as an example of self-parody. I would respectfully disagree, citing Mahler’s inscription “to my brothers in Apollo” on the autograph score. This is usually interpreted as an answer to those critics who chastised Mahler for his lack of sophistication, giving them a furious dose of counterpoint in one of his most ruthless movements. If one includes Mahler himself in the “brotherhood,” I suppose I can see an element of self-parody; but the sharpest barbs are definitely directed elsewhere.
I can recommend these videos equally for their excellent biographical information and for the superb concerts. Those with Blu-ray equipment are in for a special treat, but even the DVD is superior to most video productions of Mahler’s music. These videos are a splendid appendix (or perhaps coda is better) to the indispensible MTT/SFSO Mahler collection.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in D major "Titan" by Gustav Mahler
Michael Tilson Thomas
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
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