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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 3 In D Minor

Pierre Boulez conducting theVienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Anne Sofie Von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Women's Chorus of the Vienna Singverein, Vienna Boys' Choir
CD Stock No.: Deutsche Grammophon 289 474 038-2

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony. Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Women of the SFS Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, San Francisco Girls Chorus.
CD Stock No.: San Francisco Symphony 821936-0003-2

Review By John Shinners
Click here to e-mail reviewer


CD Number: Various (see above)


  Lately it seems that you can't swing an audio cable without hitting another jewel case full of Mahler's great Third Symphony. I count at least ten notable recordings in the last five years: Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1998, EMI), Salonen and the LA Philharmonic (1998, Sony), Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati (1998, Telarc), Nagano and the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin (1999, Teldec), Litton and the Dallas (2000, Delos), Gielen and the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden & Freiburg (2001, Hanssler), Abbado and the Berlin (2002, Deutsche Grammophon) and, in 2003, Bychkov and the WDR Symphony of Cologne (Avie), Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony (on their own label: San Francisco Symphony 821936-0003-2), and Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 289 474 038-2), the last two under review here. (Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia have a Third due out on Telarc in late February.)

Of all Mahler's works, the Third Symphony (1902) comes closet to realizing his belief that a symphony "should be like a world. It must embrace everything." Clocking in at around 100 minutes, it is not only his longest work, it is also the longest work in the mainstay symphonic repertoire--long enough to contain Beethoven's and Brahms' Third Symphonies, with plenty of room left over for Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto. Had Mahler followed his original intention it would be longer still, since he meant to cap it with what is now the last movement from the Fourth Symphony. Its instrumental forces are likewise huge: a more than full orchestra (with seventeen woodwinds, including four piccolos at one point; sixteen brass -- including eight horns -- plus a contrabass tuba and an off-stage posthorn; augmented percussion and "very large complements of all strings," including two harps); an alto solo and both women's and boys' choruses. Such a giant instantly poses problems of balance for a conductor and stamina for an orchestra. Beyond this, the structure of the symphony is itself a challenge; it is Mahler's most unwieldy work. Its first movement, over half an hour long, is a relentless--sometimes sunny, sometimes funereal, sometimes sardonic--march. Its last movement, an intensely felt adagio, is almost as long. Sandwiched between them are four briefer movements that vary greatly in character. It's hard to make the six parts makes sense as a whole. (Maybe it's the symphony's "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" attitude--a very "pomo" sensibility--that is suddenly making it so popular.)

Many of us first learned the Third from Jascha Horenstein's legendary survey with the London Symphony Orchestra and Norma Proctor, originally issued in the early 1970s by Nonesuch, the Naxos of its day, and reissued on CD a decade ago on Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD2006/07). Of all contenders, Horenstein is still probably the best at balancing all the colors in this multicolored palette, at stepping back and seeing how the whole piece coheres. But the sound on that recording, though good, is now dated. 

This new Third is part of Tilson Thomas and the SFS's ongoing survey of Mahler's symphonies. Like its companions, the First and the Sixth, it was recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall (in September 2002). Boulez's Third is likewise part of a complete cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, though he switches back and forth between the VPO and the Cleveland SO.

I find both accounts thrilling, each having its own strengths. Both conductors manage the tricky flow in tempo and mood of the difficult first movement with skill. It's basically one gigantic march, which Mahler originally subtitled "Pan Awakes. Summer Comes Marching In." Boulez, as to be expected, is particularly scrupulous about following the score's detailed instructions regarding tempi and sound. The slightly wider dynamic range of the Deutsche Grammophon recording is well suited to catch Mahler's score markings here, which can leap quickly from pppp to fff. Though in five of the six movements Tilson Thomas picks speeds that are typically two minutes longer than either Boulez or the three rival accounts I prefer (Horenstein, Rattle, and Abbado's live performance issued in 2002), his pace in the march and elsewhere never drags. In both recordings, you come away from this first great wash of sound fully satisfied, slightly exhausted, yet eager for more.

The differences between the two accounts--and they are generally slight--come in the four inner movements. The second movement ("What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me") is a lazy menuetto interrupted by frantic orchestral tumbles. Both Boulez and Tilson Thomas grasp the serene yet playful lilt here. To my surprise, Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans are better at catching the hesitating ebb and flow of this ländler-like dance than the born-to-waltz Viennese. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik's solo violin work for Tilson Thomas is also sweet and characterful.

Tilson Thomas races out of the gate at the start of the third movement ("What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me"), faster than any of my comparison recordings. But then he pulls back the tempo as the haunting posthorn solo, played offstage, arrives. Here the SFS's principal trumpet, Glenn Fischthal, plays with beautiful tone and feeling. Boulez provides less contrast between the opening and this extended solo, and though Hans Peter Schuh also plays beautifully, things feel more rushed and less expressive. (Boulez takes 16'38 to Tilson Thomas' 18'58 for the movement.)

The fourth movement ("What the Night Tells Me," later changed to "What Humanity Tells Me") is played ppp throughout, marked Misterioso, and introduces a contralto singing the "Midnight Song" from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. It's Mahler's eeriest composition, characterized by lots of sustained low strings, string harmonics, and double reeds. In his 1998 recording, Simon Rattle restored a usually ignored printed score marking for the two-note oboe call that periodically accents the song: Wie ein Naturlaut (like a sound from nature). The autograph apparently calls it Der Vogel der Nacht (night bird). It employs a portamento or slurred slide from the first to second note--a sound an oboe never makes intentionally. I liked it from the first time I heard it; it adds an uncanny element to music that is already spectral and contemplative. Boulez uses it here; Tilson Thomas disregards it. On the other hand, Tilson Thomas' slower tempo here feels better judged to catch the mystery of the movement.

A more dramatic difference is their choice of soloist. Mahler's score calls for an "alto," and typically contraltos take the part. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung sings for Tilson Thomas (as she did on Lopez-Cobos' recording with the Cincinnati). Her voice is warm and honey-rich. Mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, who has of course a gorgeous voice, sings for Boulez. But compared to DeYoung, a mezzo who sounds like a contralto, she lacks the darker, richer weight that characterizes the orchestral scoring, even though she is a little more expressive than DeYoung. 

Compared to what has gone before, the fifth movement ("What the Angels Tell Me") is over in a blink--just four minutes long--though it calls for the largest forces in the symphony: the full orchestra, soloist, and the women's and boys' choruses. It's a sweet little parable for a choir of angels and a penitent St. Peter, taken from Mahler's favorite literary source, the folktale collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Here Boulez scores points by having on hand the women of the Vienna Singverein, who sing as if this music is in their blood, and the Vienna Boys' Choir, who really nail the onomatopoeic "bimm bamm"s meant to mimic bells. Von Otter's mezzo works better here than in the "Midnight Song," but she is a bit self-indulgent in her over-characterized performance as the weeping St. Peter. 

Tilson Thomas recruits the women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. They sound wonderful; their articulation is excellent and the recording does an especially good job of capturing the sonic space of the choirs. From what I can hear, Tilson Thomas has doubled the boys' choir with the girls' chorus. This produces a warmer tone but it robs the movement of the brightness and slightly naive quality that boys alone give and that seems appropriate to the "angelic" tone that Mahler is going for. DeYoung sings things straight and lovely, avoiding von Otter's distracting pathos.

Both orchestras pull off the peaks and valleys of the last movement ("What Love Tells Me") with true conviction--a must if this symphony is to succeed. Perhaps Mahler's best adagio, done properly, it can create the effect of one long, exhaled breath. Tilson Thomas better maintains this integral flow; Boulez perhaps lets the giant tuttis scattered through the movement slightly hinder the forward progress. Nevertheless, both men pack enormous emotional intensity into this wrenching capstone.

The San Francisco recording is colorful and dynamic. It's a live recording, but the audience makes not an audible peep. (There is a faint but satisfying "you-are-there" rustle at the end of the fourth movement as the choirs stand for the next movement, which proceeds without interruption.) Issued on two discs that comprise the standard CD and both SACD stereo and multi-channel formats, it creates a vivid, deeply dimensional sound world with great clarity and instrumental separation. You can feel yourself seated in Davies Symphony Hall, pretty close to the front of the house. 

This is not to say that the Vienna recording, which places the listener a few more rows back in the Grosse Musikverein, isn't also very good. Though the Deutsche Grammophon engineering isn't quite as vividly present as the San Francisco, it seems to encompass a slightly broader dynamic range--the symphony's frequent great wallops on tympani and bass drum really thunder, and the brass choirs sound magnificent. (An SACD version is available on a separate set of two discs: DG 289 474 298-2, which I have not heard.)

I have to confess that I approached Boulez's Third with real dread: his recording of the Fourth, Mahler's warmest and most congenial symphony and a companion piece to the Third, struck me as charmless and colder than a Wisconsin winter. It fell to near the bottom of my pretty big pile of Fourths. But this Third is filled with character and emotional expression. No one used to Horenstein will come away disappointed. 

But Tilson Thomas's Third comes generously coupled with a fine up-to-date recording of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (1904), once again with DeYoung as soloist. It doesn't quite beat out, say, Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli's classic account with the Hallé Orchestra, but it is always thoughtful, expressive, and in the last song, "In diesem Wetter," emotionally powerful. 

San Francisco's sound finally wins me over to Tilson Thomas by just a hair. As far as interpretation, neither he nor Boulez unseats Horenstein's benchmark recording, nor do they quite measure up to my own favorite recent recordings by Rattle and Abbado, both of whom seem to have a better grasp of the whole work. But both Boulez and Tilson Thomas and their orchestras offer exceptional accounts, conducted and played with insight and real depth of feeling and produced with excellent sound.



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