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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony; San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Vance George, choral director; Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano

Review By Wayne Donnelly
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Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"

SACD Label: SFS 821936-0006-2

 

The Resurrection is an early manifestation of the composer's grandiose conception of the symphony. It has always seemed to me like two separate works jammed together. The first three movements are purely instrumental and relatively orthodox in structure — a natural progression from the First Symphony. The last two movements inhabit a different symphonic universe. The pivotal fourth movement consists entirely of the quietly intense mezzo-soprano solo "Urlicht" ("First Light").The fifth movement is literally heaven-storming, careening unpredictably among the two solo voices, choral passages and powerful orchestral outbursts. Some would argue that in this unwieldy epic finale Mahler's reach exceeds his grasp. Perhaps so, but when confronted by a committed and persuasive performance, I find that structural criticisms become irrelevant under the cumulative emotional intensity and grandeur of Mahler's ecstatic vision.

I have heard the entire SFS Mahler cycle to date, first live in Davies Symphony Hall and subsequently on disc. Prior to the present cycle, I've heard numerous Mahler concerts during MTT's decade on the SFS podium. It has been fascinating to witness this great conductor's evolution as a Mahler interpreter, along with the orchestra‘s growing command of the composer's idiom. It has also been instructive to learn how different a finished release, assembled from multiple concerts, can be from a particular performance.

This Second closed out the 2003-2004 SFS season, occupying the final two weeks rather than the single week customarily allotted to a given program. I was dismayed when I heard the symphony during the penultimate week. That evening's performance seemed overly cautious and "by the numbers." I knew that the recording would be made during the second week's concerts, so I comforted myself that MTT and the gang would rise to the occasion when the microphones were active. And so, it seems, they did.

MTT's is not your Uncle Otto's or Uncle Bruno's Resurrection Symphony. Its mood is a long way from both the austere nobility of Klemperer's great EMI recording — my long-time favorite — and the lyrica warmth and spirituality of Walter on Columbia, from which I first learned this work. Nor does it resemble the extravagant romanticism of both Bernstein's New York and Vienna performances, or the epic grandeur of Barbirolli, now reissued on Testament. What all of those interpretations share, in my view, is a progression from earthly struggle in the first three movements toward spiritual [Heavenly?] transcendence — a narrative that the symphony's title would seem to reinforce.

In contrast, MTT seems to conceive the symphony's drama as inward and psychological — almost disembodied. It is not so much a matter of tempi, although MTT's timings are generally shorter than the competition cited above. From the opening notes, his phrasing suggests to this listener psychological restlessness and spiritual yearning rather than earthly conflict.

I certainly find this approach interesting, but perhaps I am too accustomed to the measured weight of previous great interpretations — Klemperer especially — to find it totally convincing. Most problematical for me is the second movement landler. This rustic three-quarter time country dance works best when played with weighty rhythmic accents and a bit of rubato; MTT's nervously fleet reading strikes me as too rushed for comfort. But then, I don't think the maestro is aiming for comfort....

Similarly, in the third movement scherzo I miss the sense of menace conveyed by Klemperer's massive bass drum punctuations, which are barely audible on the San Francisco recording. Here again MTT's tempi seem unsettlingly quick, although the fortissimo climax near the end of the movement is powerfully effective. I expect it will take many more hearings to resolve my conflicted feelings about these first three movements.

This two-disc set places the first movement on disc 1, with the rest of the symphony on disc 2.It's easy to see why, as that delivers the largest part of the symphony continuously. But I wish the break had occurred between the third and fourth movements — because with the fourth movement we enter a quite different interpretative sphere.

Especially here. The "Urlicht" solo that comprises the fourth movement has been beautifully served over the years by wonderful singers — two of my favorites being Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig. But the eloquence, spirituality and sheer vocal beauty of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson on this recording is for this listener incomparably moving — reason enough in itself to acquire this performance!

As the fourth movement flows without pause into the finale, this performance's grip never eases. From my very first hearing, and in many subsequent playings, I find myself unable to interrupt the flow of the music, incapable of skipping around for particular passages. The slight disconnect I feel at times in the opening movements are nowhere to be found in the finale. It is not so much that I "take off my critic's cap" as that it simply vanishes in the light of the performance's unrelenting hold on my concentration and emotions. Time and again, I emerge from the final notes as if from a dream, so deeply does this magnificent recreation affect me.

The performers here are above reproach. Ms. Liebeson I have already praised. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sings radiantly in a somewhat smaller role. Kudos to the superb San Francisco Symphony Chorus and choral director Vance George. And the San Francisco Symphony again proves itself a great Mahler orchestra, rendering with precision and feeling the line and phrasing demanded by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Recording quality has also improved as this cycle progresses. The sound here is commendably clean and detailed, impressively spacious and with superb dynamic range, from intimate piano passages to the stupendous fortissimo climaxes.

My reservations about the first half of this recording should not dissuade any Mahler fan from a purchase. It may well be that I simply need more exposure to come to terms MTT's unconventional approach; in no way can it be considered dull or routine. And I know of no performance — not even my beloved Klemperer — that exceeds the power and emotional catharsis of the last two movements. 

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Movements 4-5:

 

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