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Recordings

San Francisco Symphony 60045 [2SACDs]
14 Aug 2012

Mahler: Symphony no. 3 / Kindertotenlieder

Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony is an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3; Kindertotenlieder

Michelle De Young, mezzo soprano, Women of the San Francisco Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, San Francisco Girls Chorus, San Francsico Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor.

San Francisco Symphony 60045 [2SACDs]

$24.99  Click to buy

At the core of this release is an insightful treatment of the fourth movement, the setting of the “Midnight Song” from Nietzcher’s Also sprach Zarathustra (“O Mensch! Gib acht!”). While a number of fine recordings of this work exist, this particular interpretations stands apart because of the ways in which the thematic ideas emerge with the shape and phrasing that brings out details, like the evocation of “Urlicht,” the fourth movement of the Second Symphony near the text “Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?” in this movement of the Third Symphony. Here Tilson Thomas and Michelle de Young work together in making this interpretation memorable for details like this, which fit into the larger whole. In fact, the interpretation and banding support the structure of the last three movements as a unit, where the solo setting from Nietzche leads into the setting of “Es sungen drei Engel” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and culminates in the instrumental Finale of the Symphony. Yet the core of this unity is in this ten-minute movement, which deserves rehearings to appreciate the attention the performers brought to the piece.

De Young is an exemplary Mahler interpreter, and this recording demonstrates her fine technique and sensitivity to the phrasing. Her rich tone is present in the softer passages, as well as in the louder ones, with the color always present, and the voice never strained. In fact the qualities which De Young brings to the fourth movement are evident in the fifth, where the solo voice expresses the confession of St. Peter for betraying Jesus when he was arrested. In this interpretation, the phrasing fits both the text, and the music, with the quotation of lines from the song “Das himmlische Leben” appropriately lyrical. Here the chorus not only conveys the text, but evokes instrumental music with the ostinato figures Mahler used in it.

A similar lyricism is present in the Finale, where the orchestra’s phrasing is poignant, as Tilson Thomas shapes the phrases to create sections that make the structure palpable. This sense of vocality is present throughout the Finale, even the orchestral outbursts in the horns and other brass, which fit well into the fabric of this interpretation. At the same time, the balance between textures and dynamic levels follows the score faithfully and results in an intensive conclusion to the movement. Wordless, text, and even without the movement titles Mahler once used for this work, the result is impressively moving in this persuasive interpretation of a sprawling score, which has challenged generations of performers as they also approached the Third Symphony.

The first three movements of the Symphony are equally convincing, with the lyrical character of the Wunderhorn song “Ablösung im Sommer” evident in the quotations form it in the Scherzo. In that movement Tilson Thomas makes Mahler’s scoring audible, as the shadings emerge readily in this well-engineered release. The delicacy of the second movement is also apparent, with the rich sonorities of the strings resonating well in this performance. The monumental opening movement receives a careful treatment by Tilson Thomas in a performance which lasts 36 minutes. Here the various elements in Mahler’s score are treated with care, so as to distinguish the elements of the score as they occur. As the marches and march-like music develop in its structure, the structure takes shape vividly in this performance. The sonics in this recording represent the live performance well, and give a sense of immediacy and excitement. It is a strong interpretation of the first movement, which shapes the pieces that follow.

Included with this recording is a performance of the song cycle Kindertotenlieder, which De Young interprets persuasively. Her elegant phrasing and clear diction bring the poetry forward in this familiar piece. The set of songs is compelling for the thoughtful tempos that allow the text to be heard, with the accompaniment serving the strophes of each song well. The cycle fits into the remaining time on the second disc, and its inclusion is not related to the Third Symphony. After all, the two works are separated by a decade, and Tilson Thomas is good to distinguish the styles deftly. This recording of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder bears consideration for the fine collaboration between the soloist, orchestra and conductor in presenting with elegiac qualities of the work without resorting to maudlin sentiment or histrionics. Rather, the sense of loss and its acceptance is present throughout piece and guides this memorable interpretation.

James Zychowicz

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