Mahler Symphony No 6

AN eloquently tragic Sixth makes a forceful start to Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle

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Mahler Symphony No 6Mahler Symphony No 6

MAHLER Symphony No 6 – Tilson Thomas

  • Symphony No. 6

This recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was made from performances planned long before the events of September 11 gave the San Francisco Symphony’s choice of repertory extraordinary resonance. One must be careful‚ of course‚ when connecting a very real tragedy with a recording of a ‘tragic’ symphony‚ for there is the risk of descending into the most vile form of marketing (which the SFS appears to have avoided)‚ as well as the possibility that the musical result will not be able to bear the expressive burden placed upon it‚ or that the work itself will be distorted by the heightened emotions of the moment. It is a credit to both Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra‚ then‚ that this ferocious performance not only bears that very substantial burden‚ but that it does so without hysteria or self­indulgence.
Tempos are judiciously chosen. In the first movement‚ for example‚ Tilson Thomas’s Allegro energico‚ ma non troppo is only a hair’s breadth slower than Bernstein’s in his Vienna Philharmonic recording‚ yet the difference is enough to give proper weight to the march. Indeed‚ the SFS strings dig very deep to produce a dark‚ throaty tone of startling vehemence. Ardently played and generously phrased‚ the ‘Alma’ theme provides welcome consolation – and how longingly Tilson Thomas clings to the final peaks of its melody.
Gunshot­like sforzandi from the timpani introduce the scherzo‚ sharply­etched here with stinging dotted rhythms. The trios are similarly pointed – though affectionately grazioso‚ as Mahler requests – and rather deliberately paced‚ like a long­forgotten dance now remembered in slow motion. The Andante moderato is also treated expansively‚ but the tension never sags‚ thanks largely to Tilson Thomas’ natural feeling for the music’s ebb and flow. Note‚ for instance‚ how conscientiously he observes the many tempo modifications in the climactic passage beginning at fig 59 (12'30")‚ wrenching as much tension as possible from the ritard in bars 152­153‚ yet none of this pushing and pulling sounds exaggerated. Karajan‚ by contrast‚ pays little heed to these markings‚ and the result‚ though beautifully played‚ is unidiomatic.
Tilson Thomas mis­steps only once in the sprawling finale‚ pressing too hard at the end of the introduction so that the orchestra arrives prematurely at the main tempo (Allegro energico) – a minor flaw and quickly forgiven. The famous hammer blows pack a wallop‚ even if they sound more like deep‚ resonant thuds here than the heavy axe­strokes Mahler specifies. The first blow is truly disorienting‚ and the music almost spins out of control‚ with strings rushing ahead of the brass. The aftershocks that follow the second blow seem inexorable. While the exhausted trumpets do not quite manage a true morendo on the final chord‚ it seems churlish to complain.
Certainly a more impressive start to Tilson Thomas and the SFS’s Mahler cycle is difficult to imagine. Less mannered than Bernstein‚ and more emotionally engaged than Karajan‚ this is an exceptionally intense and‚ under the circumstances‚ remarkably coherent performance that is not to be missed. Very good sound quality‚ too‚ from the orchestra’s new in­house label. (Some early pressings of the second disc may have a small technical flaw. The orchestra will replace any defective copies.)

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