Mahler in San Francisco
The Grammys were handed out in LA on Sunday and in the classical sector, once again, provoked comments of “What?” and “OK, fair enough!”. The top prize this year went to Mahler’s Eighth, part of the San Francisco Symphony’s cycle under Michael Tilson Thomas. More than “fair enough!” I think, especially in Mahler Year Part 1. Mahler’s Eighth is one symphony I still struggle with. I think it’s partly to do with its sounding completely unlike anything in the Mahler oeuvre – not a problem in itself but it does make embracing it as part of the whole quite hard. I also have big problems with the text (something it shares with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – astounding music but words that if not repel, certainly perplex!). I heartily approve, though, of the fact it’s so rarely done because at least it maintains its ability to create a real sense of occasion (would that the Second and Ninth symphonies could once again become “events”).
Now, I’m not sure Mahler’s Eighth is quite the piece to go round listening to on your iPod, but in the domestic setting (and with tolerant neighbours) can be a hugely powerful listen. You can get the MTT recording from iTunes and eMusic, and it’s well worth acquiring. I was greatly taken by a little clip on YouTube that the SFSO made to introduce the work and the recording to its audience. In just seven minutes MTT, his musicians, production team and members of the SFSO and its management really convey the work’s colossal ambition. It looked like a shattering experience.
The soprano Erin Wall sums up the work’s beauty with a simplicity that’s very moving – and you can tell that she was really choked up by the piece. That moment toward the end where the flutes seem to look up into the heavens as the Mater Gloriosa soars over the everything is truly breathtaking.
Big thumbs up for the prize for David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion – an extraordinary piece that I've been playing incessantly: the sounds these virtuoso performers (Theatre of Voices) create is so original and, in this context, very, very powerful. It's available from eMusic and iTunes. Hats off, too, for the prize for Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto – I was at the London premiere (the basis for this recording) and really warmed to his big-hearted music. Check it out at eMusic and iTunes.
The Emerson Quartet's Janacek string quartets? Definitely a "What?" – has the jury ever heard the Pavel Haas, Talich or Skampa Quartets play this music? Or even Janacek's quartets before? In a single word: glib!
James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter; he also hosts some Saturday afternoon shows. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.