- Audio CD (Jun 4 2002)
- Number of Discs: 1
- Format: Hybrid SACD
- Label: Delos Records
- ASIN: B000060OQ5
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #236,794 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
Two of the first three (Benjamin Zander with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Sanderling with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra) got the benefit of some commentary of mine elsewhere at Amazon. The third (Michael Gielen with the SWR Orchestra of Baden-Baden/Freiburg) had been in the queue for similar commentary treatment. And then this Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony Orchestra live performance arrived, putting detailed commentary on the Gielen recording on at least temporary hold.
Tilson Thomas (MTT, for short) has gauged this symphony largely along lines most similar to those of Zander in the outer two movements and Bernstein/Vienna ("Bernstein II") in the inner movements, as a "tale of the tape" (comparative movement timings) shows. Each of these three performances has many strengths and few weaknesses. While I personally think that Zander accomplishes the near-impossible in his shattering realization of the final movement, MTT is very close indeed (and provides two hammer blows vs. three, for those "who are counting"). All three are rather evenly matched in the opening movement, but I give a slight edge to MTT by virtue of the atmospheric effects he is able to achieve with the brief "respite" provided by the celeste and cow bells late in the movement; beautifully done. There is little to choose between Bernstein II and MTT in the second-movement Scherzo; they are within a few seconds of each other and "of a piece." (Here, Zander is considerably more demonic; for some, perhaps slightly too much so.) It is in the third-movement Andante where MTT really shines. At 17'27" he is more than a minute more leisurely than Bernstein II (at 16'16"), who in turn is about a minute faster than Zander. Yet MTT's Andante seems perfectly gauged and not a second too long; a necessary voyage into a different, sublimely beautiful world in a remote key signature before the Finale, with its eventual - and Tragic - felling of Mahler's protagonist/hero.
The recording is one of the new SACD/CD "hybrid" variety, but I have only the ability to play the standard CD layer. Suffice it to say that the standard CD stereo is excellent (particularly for a live-performance recording), with an outstanding sense of hall ambience and "air" and at the same time the ability to hear fine details and inner voices. It lacks nothing in immediacy and in its ability to represent even the strongest passages without evidence of overload or compression. The packaging is lavish, and includes a rather fine essay on the work by Michael Steinberg. Unfortunately for this effort, Michael Steinberg had also been the essay author for the Zander/Boston P.O. performance booklet, in which his exposition of the work and his lyrical flights of wordsmanship were as fine as they get. So here, his essay is somewhat diluted and reduced in effect compared with that earlier effort. But, if you're half the Mahlerite that I am, you'll already have that Zander performance in your library. And you're likely to have the later Bernstein (as well as the earlier Bernstein) and the Sanderling as well.
Can I pick an overall, final favorite among these four or five recordings? Not yet, despite having listened to most of them many times and the new MTT recording several times. But, for reasons I explain below, I'm likely to listen to this MTT recording, at least temporarily, to the exclusion of the others as I continue to grasp just what had been achieved here.
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the remarkable circumstances under which the performances for this live recording were given. Scheduled many months in advance, they took place during a four-day period beginning September 12, 2001, under what can only be considered as the most difficult and painful of circumstances. It seems that there were absolutely no second thoughts about putting this concert on as originally scheduled, other easier, more "balming" program substitution opportunities notwithstanding. In this context, MTT's sublime third-movement Andante represents, to me, the musical equivalent of "the end of innocence" before "peering into the abyss" of the Finale. It was an act of some courage on the part of MTT, his orchestra, and his San Francisco audience; this document is testimony to that collective courage. And those two events, of 9/11 and the following days of performing and recording this masterpiece, will forever more be inextricably linked in my mind, as "history; one for the ages."
Three and one-half decades ago (almost to the day), the late, great Jack Diether, in writing notes to the first (1967) recording of this work that Leonard Bernstein made with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, wrote "To those who better understand Mahler, our world, and perhaps themselves, the work as a whole is exhilarating, not depressing. It is pre-eminently cathartic, just as the greatest tragedies of ancient Greece are cathartic." And as these performances must have been to those San Franciscans still reeling from 9/11. Mahler's time had indeed come.
The SFO plays well for MTT: his performance with the LA Philharmonic revealed even more attention to inner voices and intensity of feeling, perhaps in part due to the superior brass and woodwind sections at his command. Every nuance can be appreciated in the sonics of Disney Hall. This new approach by an ever-growing conductor should be recorded as well. The evening was resplendent! MTT's approach to Mahler continues to command our respect and alter our lives.
I have no idea what "SACD" means, but I was unable to stay "SACkeD" out through the closing bars.