Site review by Geohominid September 21, 2009
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|For me, the Tilson Thomas/SFS cycle has been one of the most consistent of the many SACD Mahler series currently available or in progress. Consistent in deeply-thought readings, fine orchestral playing, and excellent engineering, this series has produced some of the most convincingly realistic captures of live symphony concert performances available.
On paper, Mahler's recipe for his 8th Symphony sounds like a disaster; a first part consisting of a massive choral setting of the early Church's Latin 'Veni Creator Spiritus' hymn, married to an abridged setting of the last scene from Goethe's 'Faust' sung in German. In live performance, however, the chemistry of this unlikely conjunction just works. The theme of the Creator Spirit and the closely-held notion of Redemption by Love which the Symphony's parts respectively represent are set to music of a grandeur and conviction which was remarkable for its time. It provides a deeply moving experience for the listeners in a concert audience. The difficulty comes in reproducing that communal experience at scale in a domestic environment, and that is where disappointment often lies. If any current recording medium can attempt to produce a convincing illusion of performance, it is with multi-channel high-definition sound.
Having suffered much disappointment myself (including cringes when an expensive moving coil cartridge overloaded from too ambitious a track modulation, e.g. in the original analogue Solti performance), I can say that this multi-channel recording goes a long way to making a believable 'Symphony of a Thousand' arrive in the average listening room. As shown on the fold-out panoramic photograph of the Davies Symphony Hall, the double choruses are separately arrayed across a wide balcony above the orchestra pit, with the children's choirs opposite one another on the outer sides. This gives a strong and immediate choral presence, with each section of the two main choirs clearly located in the sound-stage, so that Mahler's many antiphonal effects come over perfectly, greatly aiding perceptions of the complex part-writing, especially in Part I. One can even hear clearly whether the back or front chorus rows are singing. This is a major advantage over the usual generalised blocks of choral sound in many other recordings.
The eight soloists are arranged in the mix in a wider group across the broad sound-stage than shown on the photograph, which again helps locate and differentiate their roles and interactions. Best of all, the DSD capture is able to contain the huge dynamic range without overload and with remarkable detail; for example listen for the soft kisses of cymbals in the opening of Part II. Later in the ethereal music with children's choirs, the presence of the piano together with the celeste and harps is beautifully caught, as is the mandolin. The final peroration expands effortlessly, with no loss of textural detail and with pinpoint clarity - a deeply musical climax, not just a welter of sound. When the extra brass raise their bells, there is a palpable frisson. Some will undoubtedly think that the Ruffatti Concert Organ (the largest concert organ in North America) does not make enough of an impression, particularly in the finale. It sounds ample to me when launching the 'Veni Creator', and is certainly present (but not dominant) in the big climaxes of Part II. In this predominantly vocal piece, the organ's role is proportional support, not concertante work as in Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony .
MTT takes Mahler's instruction of "impetuoso" for the Veni Creator to heart, impelling the opening with an energy reflecting Mahler's own white-hot creative spirit (writing the Symphony's draft in only a few months). This is not just an inspiring pace but comes with an infectious rhythmic drive, making full use of the bar-by-bar time signature changes of the "Veni Creator spiritus" phrase in its 4/4,3/4,2/4,4/4 sequences. The San Francisco chorus are in excellent form, tossing the antiphonal exchanges seamlessly from Choir I to Choir II across the stage, and handling the many-part contrapuntal complexities with aplomb. Soloists are well matched, although sometimes they are cavalier in obeying Mahler's dynamic marks, particularly the softer ones. This movement has a sure arch of exultant purpose and reaches a stunning climax on a long-held E flat major chord with sharply-delineated brass fanfares, having prepared us for the Faustian drama to come.
The text of Part II was carefully edited by Mahler, who felt no qualms in adapting Goethe's scene to his purpose. MTT's flowing pace at the mysterious opening in the rocky fastnesses keeps the narrative moving, where one often feels longueurs after the vibrant first movement. He does relax considerably, however, in the core of the movement, relishing the exquisite chamber orchestration of the accompaniment to the children's choirs (harps, celeste, piano, solo violin), which suggests Mahler's revisiting the Wunderhorn years of his early symphonies - the gentle music sounds authentically Austrian. Later, MTT's handling of the sections with Una Poenitentum (soprano Elza van der Heever's effortless soaring lines ) and Mulier Samaritana (mezzo Katarina Karnéus' richly expressive chest voice) evokes a strong anticipation of Das Lied Von der Erde with its bubbling wind chorus and delicate textures.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has a fine, ringing heroic tenor voice and sings Doctor Marianus with deep understanding and careful word painting. Bass James Morris as Pater Profundus sounds rather harsh, vocally and in portrayal, somewhat overemphasising his delivery, and at one point spits out an ugly "k" sound at the beginning of a word. Laura Claycomb as Mater Gloriosa moves matters on to the slow-burning build-up to the great conclusion; she appears in the distant rear left of the sound stage singing dolcissimo, and atmospherically elicits the tender "Komm" appeals from the choirs. The San Fancisco Chorus sing "Alles vergängliche (Everything is illusory) as if delivering a great Truth, their ppp tone full and beautifully controlled, and the end of the Symphony is deeply impressive in its superbly captured blaze of radiant colours and affirmation of love's triumph.
While there are inevitable minor blemishes in the live performances which make up MTT's final Mahler 8th at San Francisco - some smudged horn entries and so on - I found this account most rewarding emotionally and musically. Its engineering provides one of the most convincing domestic illusions of the live performance experience I have heard. A fitting conclusion to the San Francisco Mahler series indeed.
At 27:41, the Adagio of Mahler's 10th Symphony is no mere make-weight, and prefaces the Veni Creator movement of the 8th on the first disc of a 2-disc set. It is the most 'complete' movement of the draft score as left by Mahler, being fully orchestrated, although the composer would undoubtedly have returned and overhauled it at a later stage.
Beginning with a terrifyingly exposed wandering theme for the violas (coming in cold) it amounts to one of Mahler's great love-songs, with two of his richest and most poignant melodies. The work is an intensely personal struggle with his love for Alma, his wife, who was being seduced by Walter Gropius. Freud's analysis of Mahler (from the one short conversation they had while walking in Paris) was that he suffered from a 'Mary Complex' deriving from his childhood, in which he had witnessed his drunken father violently and frequently battering his mother. Feeling unable to confess to Alma the true depth of his love for her, he resorted to this anguished music, scrawling "Almschi!, Almschi!" across many pages of the score. The movement reaches a terrifying crisis with two repeats of a dissonant chord containing all the chromatic notes and topped by a high trumpet note, before resolving into some kind of solace. MTT has its measure, and the SF strings play with luminous tone, with some gorgeously nuanced and idiomatic portamenti as the music ends.
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