San Francisco Symphony (Tilson Thomas) – ‘Mahler: Symphony No.4’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

There are two main roads that conductors of Mahler’s ‘Symphony No.4’ tend to travel. One is more strictly classical and focused, with a narrow range of tempos and a smooth flow from one section to the next. The other road goes all over the place. A quick look at Mahler’s score confirms that despite the work’s tongue-in-cheek nods to old-fashioned and objective classical styles, it is most certainly the latter road that leads to Mahler’s world. Therefore, warm as they are, a number of literally classic performances such as George Szell’s on Sony and Paul Kletzki’s on EMI really don’t pass muster as accurate pictures of this symphony. But as the tradition of Mahler conducting has matured in the last few decades, more conductors have been grasping the peculiar mechanics of Mahler’s scores, and the ‘Fourth’ in particular has had a number of great performances, including this new one from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony – although anyone wanting to get down Tilson Thomas’ ambling country road in a hurry will be frustrated. MTT (as he’s called for short) takes a lingering Sunday drive through the symphony, bringing it in at a total time of over 62 minutes, which is one of the longest timings I’ve ever heard for this piece. But those willing to follow the conductor’s path may find themselves enraptured by this loving performance.

Mahler’s first movement has plenty of nods to Haydn and Mozart, but the finest performances are acutely aware of how Mahler puts this virtual classical pastiche into a food processor and gleefully redistributes the chunks in sometimes unexpected places. Performances that maintain one tempo or speed up and slow down to ease the transition from section to section are missing Mahler’s piquant humor. Thus, a performance like George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra recording from 1964 may be warm and smiling, but it is never laughing, and Mahler without cutting wit really isn’t Mahler at all. Conductors have struggled with this movement over the years, and it remains one of the most deceptively simple movements in all Mahler. There’s no shortage of approaches. We’ve seen everything from Eduard Van Beinum’s fourteen-minute sprint to Harold Farberman’s nineteen-minute stroll. MTT weighs in a little on the leisurely side at seventeen-and-a-half minutes, but there is considerable variety in tempo along the way to keep things interesting. Compared to other notable recordings of recent vintage, MTT edges out some of the competition simply by seeming more convinced of the rightness of Mahler’s wayward tempo changes. Esa-Pekka Salonen, for instance, recorded a lively version for Sony in the early 1990’s with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but the tempo changes seem a touch contrived and calculated. When it first came out, I enjoyed its attention to Mahler’s minutiae, but it has not worn so well over time, its characterizations seeming to range further in width than they do in depth. A recording that came out a little before that seemed comparatively under characterized at the time, but the performance by Franz Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic on EMI has grown on me over the years. Though a little more reserved than Salonen, it doesn’t slight Mahler’s quirky touches. Indeed, Welser-Möst keeps his tongue firmly in cheek throughout the first movement. His slightly wry dryness points up Mahler’s wit effectively and, interestingly, allows a very natural buildup to remarkable intensity in the climactic passage in the middle of the movement. This is also the passage that gives birth to the trumpet call that Mahler was later to take up as the opening phrase of his ‘Symphony No.5’. Thus we find ourselves at one of the key crossroads in Mahler’s world, and Welser-Möst makes more of that than most performances. Indeed, his reserve allows the climax to hit with considerable weight. Benjamin Zander’s Telarc recording is good in many respects, but it seems to live mainly for that moment. Zander responds more to the epic and dramatic in Mahler, whereas the sunnier parts of the ‘Fourth’ seem to only intermittently engage his sharpest commitment, even to the point of allowing the bassoon to slow down just before rehearsal number eighteen in the score, even though the score specifically says not to slow down. MTT is conversely less at ease with the stormiest passages in Mahler, preferring the subtler ascents into transcendence. That makes the ‘Fourth’ ideal for MTT, and this performance is one of the finest yet in his complete cycle being recorded and released by San Francisco Symphony Media, the orchestra’s in-house production company.

MTT’s path through the first movement is leisurely, but exquisitely coiffed, possibly too much so for some tastes; if this interpretation is akin to a Sunday drive, it is also one dressed in its finest Sunday clothes, but the numerous gear-changes Mahler included are handled smoothly and with notable assurance by conductor and orchestra. Additional felicities such as sprung rhythms and lilting grace notes keep the tempo from feeling excessively slow, although I would have to say that overall I prefer the movement to go faster than this, because even though MTT remains flexible, a certain lightness of touch is lost by all performances of the movement that run over seventeen minutes (thus including Welser-Möst and Salonen). Among my favorite versions of the movement are the slightly faster Eliahu Inbal, who made the ‘Fourth’ the peak of his Denon cycle with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in the 1980’s; the more recent version by Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic on RCA, which is simply overflowing with loads of character; and, perhaps above all, Klaus Tennstedt’s 1982 London Philharmonic recording for EMI, which is bracingly fast without getting into the hectic breathlessness that mars performances by Van Beinum and Benjamin Britten. Additionally, Tennstedt is one of the few conductors who handled the “etwas eilend” interruptions in the first movement effectively. Instead of plodding through them in tempo, he takes Mahler at his word and pushes the tempo, effectively making them little signposts of new turns on Mahler’s road. MTT is a touch more discreet in handling those, with just enough push to suggest the marking in the score. Yet in other places, MTT is a bit prone to exaggeration, such as in the three notes in the violins leading from the opening sleigh bells into the first theme of the movement. MTT slows this down quite a bit, whereas Mahler’s score simply says “un poco ritardando” (“slowing a little”). Likewise, MTT inserts hesitations in the gradual speed up into the closing pages that are not in Mahler’s score, but they are effective nonetheless, and it’s hard to imagine that Mahler would object to the witty effect.

The second movement receives one of its best performances ever on this release. San Francisco concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s violin solo rivals or even surpasses the sharply characterized solo that Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil offered in Pierre Boulez’s otherwise poker-faced version on Deutsche Grammophon. MTT makes less of a meal out of the tempo changes and phrasings of the trio of this scherzo than Salonen and Gatti, which doesn’t hurt it, although it falls just short of the individuality of Inbal’s performance. MTT doesn’t have his string players use as much portamento sliding as Inbal has his do, and I find that I miss it when it isn’t there. Many modern players are suspicious of excessive portamento, but it isn’t something that is optional with Mahler. Rather, portamento was the expressive device of Mahler’s day, which modern players have replaced with Kreisleresque vibrato on every note. Although Inbal’s Frankfurt players didn’t have the body of sound of a Vienna Philharmonic, or even a London Philharmonic (let alone the kind of silky texture that we hear from the San Francisco strings) they played in Inbal’s recording with a freshness and luminosity that is probably closer to what Mahler was originally after. (Speaking of the Inbal cycle, that brings an interesting thought to mind: I remember reading articles twenty years ago that talked about how the Denon engineers had to utilize digital timing-adjustments on the microphones that they placed toward the rear of the Frankfurt Opera House for hall ambiance on those recordings. If the original signals were preserved on the recordings and the delays were only utilized in the mixing, those recordings could be “retrofitted” for multichannel sound. Hint, hint.)

MTT’s slow movement is something extraordinary, although it is bound to prove the most controversial element of this performance. Clocking in at twenty-five-and-a-half minutes, it is the slowest version of the third movement I’ve ever heard. Yet such is the conductor’s grasp of the long line, I didn’t find my attention wandering or flagging, which is more than I can say for the majority of performances of this movement. The concentration of the San Francisco players is astonishing, for the whole movement seems to unfold in a breath, nowhere hinting at the actual amount of time it is taking to unfold. That said, I still feel a preference for a more lithe, less opiated approach to the movement, such as Inbal’s or Gatti’s. Both are very fresh in the lively variations around the middle of the movement, with Inbal, especially, sculpting the melodic material with great point and freshness. Best of all in this movement was Leonard Bernstein’s second recording of the work, which was on Deutsche Grammophon with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Bernstein opted for a very flowing opening tempo that made the sudden drop in tempo at the oboe solo a heart-stopping moment. MTT’s opening tempo, while not excessively slow, is too leisurely to allow much of a slow-down moving into the second section. Most of MTT’s extra time seems to be accumulated in the succeeding variations, where he holds his tempos back, preserving the gradual arch of the movement. Not for every taste, but surprisingly effective.

The final movement is generally effective, but some of the particulars bothered me. I must admit that I have heard very, very few sopranos that I liked in this movement. Some, like Kathleen Battle in Lorin Maazel’s Vienna Philharmonic recording, overplay the child’s view of heaven angle. Many others simply play it straight, but turn out to have an inappropriate sort of voice. Laura Claycomb falls into the latter category. Though her voice is attractive, it is arguably too golden in sound for this music, which calls for a lithe and silvery voice. And Claycomb is either unwilling or unable to restrict her vocal vibrato, which seems incongruously operatic in the prayerful refrain that precedes each forte outburst in this song. Also, Claycomb doesn’t give us a true slide in the expressive glissando toward the end of the line “Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht”. Instead, she daintily drops down the scale note-by-note, which is not what Mahler wrote. Additionally, her reading of the dotted note rhythm in the main theme is very literal, not matching the sprung rhythms that the San Francisco players use, which makes the theme plod instead of lilt. But these are fussy points in what is overall a satisfying version of the movement. MTT brings it in at about nine-and-a-half minutes, which is a little slower than what it needs to be, but I’m not sure that the soprano displays enough vocal flexibility for him to have gone much faster. Nonetheless, MTT’s affection for the music is almost palpable.

The recorded sound of this release is the best yet in the San Francisco cycle. The CD layer of this hybrid disc stands effectively competitive to any other CD version, the finest of which, acoustically speaking, would be Inbal on Denon, Gatti on RCA, and Boulez on DG. The basic sound is warm and spacious, with a perfect balance from bottom to top. Those with a bass-fetish would do well to keep in mind the fact that the work is scored relatively bright and top-heavy, so that Mahler’s rare use of the bass drum registers that much more impressively. Moving into the Super Audio layer of this high-resolution DSD recording, the textures begin to “pop up” and grab the ears, which is especially gratifying in this case, since MTT and the San Franciscans feature amazingly refined textures. The bite of the strings and breathiness of the flute become very arresting. If a few supporting lines occasionally seem to blend into the general background, it appears to be because MTT wanted them subdued. Moving on to the full 5.1 multichannel SACD program brings the sound to life, with vivid three-dimensional imaging of the instruments, the depth of the stage, and the size of the hall. The rear channel bounceback is perfect, enlarging one’s sense of the hall as well as drawing one into it, without acoustically interfering with the main orchestral activity happening on stage. The low-frequency effects channel gives subtle but impressive presence to the bass drum rolls in the first and third movements. A special treat throughout this cycle is MTT’s use of divided violins. The first violins are on the left, with the second violins sitting directly across from them on the right. This divided seating pattern is similar to the pattern Mahler himself used when conducting, and it makes a significant difference. There are many places where phrases are “ping-ponged” back and forth between the two violin sections, even though the phrases could have been played by just one section or both sections together. This proves that Mahler was thinking not just abstractly about the music, but spatially in terms of audience perspective of the orchestral sound, and this recording captures that aspect of Mahler’s genius most impressively.

In sum, this is a fine contribution to the SACD catalogue, and both Mahlerites and audiophiles will find much to enjoy here. If by some wayward chance there is anyone out there who owns Zander’s recording but was considering buying this one just for Michael Steinberg’s insightful program notes, don’t bother. The notes are, minus some minor editorial touches, identical for both releases. As far as I know, even though the Zander was recorded in DSD, it has never been released as an SACD. Perhaps it will make an appearance in the high-resolution format somewhere down the road. Regardless, Michael Tilson Thomas’ performance is the better of the two, so high-resolution listeners needn’t feel too deprived. All around, an impressive release from the most enterprising integrated conductor/orchestra/recording team in America.