mahler san francisco symphony tragic

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2002 and the recording is still available. Tony Duggan passed away in 2012.

Gustav Mahler (1864-1911)
Symphony No 6 in A Minor (1903-05)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live composite, September 12-15 2001, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
SFS Media 821936-0001-2 SACD [2 discs: 88]

Should anyone think classical music has little or no relevance to today’s world, let them read the first page of the liner notes for this new recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. “This recording… was made during the San Francisco Symphony’s concerts of September 12-15, 2001 and captures a collective response to the events of September 11th. The performance of this music, planned long before that day, helped all involved … gather their thoughts and emotions as they attempted to come to grips with chaos.” Later the same writer says: “… though moments of transcendent beauty unfold at its centre, this symphony offers no simple answers”. Well it certainly offers no easy answers, that much is true. But the end-message of this work is quite unequivocal. Fate, in the guise of a major triad changing to a minor one over a military march rhythm on percussion, finally conjures up hammer blows that fell the work’s hero “like a tree is felled”, leaving nothing but disaster and loss of hope. “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” as Mahlerian Deryk Barker summed it up. So of all the symphonies to find yourself conducting and playing in America on 12th September 2001 Mahler’s Sixth must be the one you would have wanted least, or so you would think. At the end no balm, no comfort, no consolation, just tragedy. There even seems a particularly malevolent force at work in the world of coincidence to have allowed this to happen. If it had been possible, would there have been a temptation to change the programme for something easier on the emotions, I wonder? I think it says much for the courage of Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and their audience that they opted to go into the abyss anyway, four times, when turning away from it must have been what they really wanted to do most of all. It also says much for the integrity of Tilson Thomas that in no way does he seek to lighten or assuage the appalling message this symphony imparts. Alma Mahler tells us that Mahler himself was so terrified by the meaning of this work that at the first performance he conducted it badly. Tilson Thomas does not follow Mahler. He conducts it superbly and gives us a Sixth to compare with the very best on the market.

Yet maybe there was something that the audiences at those performances last year took away that was relevant to what was uppermost in their minds on those four nights; something that did indeed help them “come to grips with chaos”. It lies in the nature of tragedy itself. This is Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony and Classical Tragedy, as mounted by the Greeks, depicts the struggle by characters on stage against uncaring, unforgiving fate that in the end destroys them. In the audience this produces identification and, so the theory goes, a purgation of the emotions engendered. It is this catharsis, this emotional bloodletting, that is the central aim of classical tragedy and also the aim of Mahler in his Sixth. It is surely this effect that can be relevant in times of great trial. Rather than turn away and seek short-term comfort, it is more worthwhile to face someone else’s tragedy “one step removed” so that you come to accept the inevitability of life’s darkest side and so become stronger. As with a play on a stage, so with a symphony on a platform.

It would be interesting to know if this feeling of having been emotionally purged was the feeling of members of the audiences in San Francisco last September after these performances. If that were so, they would certainly have been helped to come to grips with chaos and in one of the oldest ways known to creative art and human history. This is why I maintain that the greatest performances of the Sixth are the ones where the conductor seems to stand a step back from the action. Where the listener hardly notices an interpretation is taking place. The best interpretation is, as one great pianist recently put it, no more noticeable than the salt and the pepper should be in a great dish. This means not intervening too much, not forcing the music into a radically different shape from the one that presents itself on the page and thereby almost mimicking the idea of watching something that isn’t real – a drama being enacted. This is Tragedy, not Melodrama. I certainly believe this is what lies behind Mahler’s stricter use of the old classical symphonic form in this his first four movement, one key symphony, complete with exposition repeat. This is his way of telling conductor and audience that he has something much subtler in his mind; a helping hand to enable the drama to be framed in the same way that classical tragedy frames the actions of the mortals on stage buffeted by fate. However, it also demands that the conductor doesn’t overlook the extraordinary energy and vigour that is as much a part of this work as the black hand of fate that wipes our hero out at the end. This must be a symphony that seems to touch every base. How else can we appreciate the magnitude of our hero’s fall if we are not first shown from where he has fallen? How else can we appreciate his loss if we are not shown first what he had to lose? With some conductors you know they are waiting for those hammers. With others you feel the catastrophe has already happened before the opening bar of the first movement. But with the best ones – Sanderling, Zander, Mitropoulos – to name three – you get the broader picture, the light as well as the dark; life as well as death. In all, Mahler’s Sixth should enhance life as well as deny it and by so doing enrich our sense of what it is to live before denial comes. “Live every day as though it was your last,” Mahler seems to tell us here.

Does Tilson Thomas deliver such a view? Overall I think he does. Let’s consider the slow movement first. In this recording, it’s placed third in order, as it is in the critical edition. Tilson Thomas is spacious here, two minutes slower than Thomas Sanderling or Michael Gielen, for example, and there is about his delivery of the music a real sense of nostalgic elegy, a looking back to a better time. Thomas Sanderling opts for a cooler, more poised “song without words” which, in the wider context of the whole work, is probably more appropriate as it is closer to what Mahler asks for in his Andante marking. But there is no doubting Tilson Thomas is convincing in his own way. This is the one major part of the performance where I felt that he was responding to contemporary events as there is a very deep and melancholy feel especially to the withdrawn, intimate passages that is very moving. The emotional climax of the movement shows another side altogether. It has great stoicism, great dignity and a surprisingly optimistic tone. The impression I have is that this has now become music of light, not dark, so making the arrival of the last movement that much more terrible. It would be possible to use this movement to wallow in self pity, but whilst Tilson Thomas does seem to want to touch our feelings, he still maintains a discernible balance between head and heart that is impressive both in itself and in the wider context.

Energy and weight combine in the opening march passage of the first movement; a tempo approach to suit Mahler’s marking that both carries forward thrust and downward force. Reconciling apparently conflicting demands of tempo will always be a problem for conductors in this movement, but Tilson Thomas seems on top of the case. In this he is unlike Barbirolli on EMI (CZS569349-2 coupled with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben or CZS767816-2 coupled with Strauss’s Metamorphosen) who goes too slowly and Levi on Telarc (CD-80444) who goes too fast. There is also a bitter taste to the woodwinds’ sour contributions even in the short interlude prior to the Alma Theme second subject. Right the way through, the superbly balanced sound allows these fine players to cut through the texture. The Alma theme itself broadens, though somewhat less than Michael Gielen in his recent recording on Hännsler (CD 93.029), but since the basic momentum has been forward moving it sits perfectly in what is a near conventional sonata form exposition with repeat. Indeed, Tilson Thomas seems more than aware of the importance of this symphonic imperative in the movement. The development shows his grasp of the march’s true importance. Notice the real stress on the percussion, precise and placed and with some arrogant swagger. Then in the cowbell interlude the change in mood is well achieved but never stops the action completely, though he does take things to the limit. We have only turned our backs on the press of events, you see, they haven’t stopped altogether; our attention has just been deflected. There is some lovely detail here in woodwind and the high tremolo violin daubs that the natural recording allows us to hear clearly. The recapitulation then has a fierce inevitability, driving home the message with the Alma theme recall prior to the coda really sung out. It is hard to imagine a better first movement than this.

In the second movement notice the cracks of the timpani, superbly balanced into the texture so that the uneven gait of the music is with us all the time. From the first movement, we have inherited that bitter taste in the sour woodwind too. Then in the first trio it is clear again that Tilson Thomas has studied the texture with a microscope so that he can render the fearsomely complex rhythmic turns with a stunning confidence that his orchestra seems to revel in. It is this awareness of the rhythmic topography of the movement that so impresses here, as it does with Sanderling, even though the latter is a touch more sinister and bitter. The SFSO shows concentration of the highest order and is a fine counterpart to the first movement. I suspect that the fact of this being taken from “live” performances has helped in some of the more daring effects.

There is a raw brutality to the timps crashing out the fate rhythm in the opening bars of the last movement. Throughout, Tilson Thomas is back in symphonic mode, the immense drama delivered with stunning immediacy and impressive reach, but with a real sense of the greater picture again. At no time does Tilson Thomas’s grip on where the music has been and where it is going falter. His orchestra seem prepared to follow him into hell. In the final bars the timps just fail to quite penetrate and the last pizzicato note is just too emphatic, but these are small quibbles in a presentation of this extraordinary music to round off a performance that immediately goes into the top flight. The two hammer blows themselves are certainly distinctive, but they appear to be just cracks on a large bass drum thus, I think, somewhat short-changing Mahler’s intentions, but Tilson Thomas is hardly alone in that. In fact, he seems to have gone for musical effect rather than sound effect. Benjamin Zander always goes to great trouble to deliver the best hammers as is shown in his IMP recording and will also, no doubt, in his forthcoming Philharmonia version for Teldec.

I listened to this new recording in standard CD stereo sound, so I cannot comment on what it sounds like in “Surround Sound” or two channel stereo, both of which are also available on this SACD pressing. What I heard is rich and detailed with plenty of impact. There is air around the instruments also, but not so much that you lose them in it. The feeling is of a good seat in the middle of the hall, on the front row of the first balcony.

For those who prefer a more “hands on” approach from their conductor, more salt, pepper and sugar in their dish, Rattle on EMI (CDS7540472) might be your man. For those who want a “live” experience that will leave you shattered try to hear Mitropoulos in the NYPO broadcasts box, though that is in mono and only available as part of an expensive set. Benjamin Zander on IMP (DMCD 93) gives us a formidable reading of the work, but as this Boston Philharmonic version is soon to be joined by a Philharmonia studio recording on Teldec perhaps we should wait for that.

Much as I admire Tilson Thomas in this work my first preference for this symphony remains with Thomas Sanderling and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (RS 953-0186). He is more volatile in the first movement and brings out more essential energy in it also. He is also slightly more “on the edge” in the scherzo, where contrasts are slightly sharper; the mood a touch more brittle. As I have said above, under Sanderling the slow movement is more flowing than with Tilson Thomas. It seems to go in one huge arc. But this was a studio recording not made under the press of terrible events and Tilson Thomas’s version will always be remarkable for that. The last movement with its even firmer basis in symphonic structure and its ability to keep looking back to what has gone and so stitch the work together is also crucially teeming with more life and incident under Sanderling. I also admire the mechanistic, machine-like delivery of so much of it that pins it to its time of composition and counterbalances the classical framing Sanderling seems to recognise to an even greater extent than Tilson Thomas does. Overall this is comparing excellence with excellence and the fact that two contemporary conductors can make two great recordings of Mahler’s tragic symphony is something we should celebrate. This new Tilson Thomas recording may be easier for you to find also, so I recommend it warmly.

This a Mahler Sixth Symphony with contemporary resonance superbly played and recorded. It competes with the best.

Tony Duggan

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From reader Mike Painter

I was at the concert of September 15 (after catching a flight home from Washington DC, where I was delayed a couple of days because of events). I do want to point out that the hammer blows were not “just cracks on a large bass drum.” There was a huge wooden box in the back corner of the stage and a gloved musician wielded a huge sledgehammer to strike the top of the box for the hammer blows. In the hall, the noise was quite unusual and noticeable. I don’t know how it turned out on the recording, but it shouldn’t be written off as “somewhat short-changing Mahler’s intentions.”