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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 4 (Michael Tilson Thomas)


Composer: Gustav Mahler
  1. Symphony No. 4 in G major: I. Bedächtig. Nicht eilen. Recht gemächlich
  2. Symphony No. 4 in G major: II. Im gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast
  3. Symphony No. 4 in G major: III. Ruhevoll (Poco adagio)
  4. Symphony No. 4 in G major: IV. Sehr behaglich

Laura Claycomb, soprano
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Date: 2003
Label: SFS Media




After a terrific First Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas’ ongoing Mahler cycle with his San Francisco players really hits its stride with this latest release, one of the truly great recordings ever lavished on the Fourth. There is exactly one potentially eyebrow-raising moment: the first variation of the Adagio’s opening theme, which Thomas takes at a daringly slow pace fully justified in the event by the gorgeously sustained playing of the orchestra’s cello section. And everywhere else the general impression of easeful, perfect euphony and effortless flow makes listening an unalloyed pleasure.

The performance’s sheer technical perfection, never mind the fact that it was edited from a series of live performances, attests to the exceptionally high standards prevailing in San Francisco at present, and the polish of the playing is complemented by abundant interpretive insight and an equally characterful response from the first chair players. There are too many “highlights” to list here, but I’m thinking in particular of the first, cheeky entrance of the clarinets in the first movement, the bassoons in its development section, and the glorious solo horn in the scherzo. Every phrase has shape, color, and an almost conversational quality that consistently energizes the orchestral textures and makes the typically Mahlerian melodic exchanges between instruments a fascinating interplay of light and shade.

In the first movement, Thomas walks the tightrope between innocence and sophistication as well as anyone ever has. His treatment of the Romantic second subject offers a meaningful lesson in idiomatic Mahlerian rubato–expressive but never mannered. Every coloristic detail, from the soft swoosh of suspended cymbals to the gentle flecks of harp tone, registers with ideal clarity and in natural perspective, and the coda is simply magical. The scherzo works very well at a moderate basic tempo, the trio sections enriched by still more lusty playing from the clarinets and the conductor’s ability to relax without checking the music’s onward progress.

As for the Adagio, this is as lovely a performance as has ever been captured–slow, but never static, with tremendous passion in the minor-key sections. The big climax explodes like a bolt of musical lightning, and the final pages are so beautifully transcendent that it takes your breath away. If the soft glissando in octaves from the violins that leads to the coda doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, then there must be something wrong either with your external or internal sound system! Laura Claycomb sings the finale with exactly the right tone of boyish simplicity and charm, exactly as Mahler directs. The final verse, where “everything awakes to joy” as the music gently goes to sleep, reminds us as exquisitely as any performance ever has that this music is about dreams–of childhood innocence, of perfect happiness, and peace.

Supporting this extraordinary interpretive achievement is the best engineering so far. The stereo sonics are marvelous: richly detailed and natural in perspective, with a brilliant top and rock-solid bass. I particularly appreciate the refusal to focus a spotlight on the excellently played solo violin in the scherzo (it’s not a concerto), and the sensitive placement of Claycomb (close enough for maximum clarity without obscuring important instrumental detail). All of these qualities carry over to the multichannel format, with the addition of greater front-to-back depth and a real sense of the room acoustic. This is by any standard an extraordinary achievement, and no one who loves Mahler or this symphony can afford to pass it by. Up next: Symphony No. 2. I can hardly wait! [4/7/2004]

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday

More reviews:

Tony Duggan's survey on MusicWeb International


Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. In his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, but his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of neglect. After 1945, Mahler became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers. Mahler's œuvre is relatively small. Aside from early works, most of his are very large-scale works, designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists.


Michael Tilson Thomas (born December 21, 1944) is an American conductor, pianist and composer. He studied piano with John Crown, composition and conducting under Ingolf Dahl. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, Tilson Thomas was a Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. He is currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony (since 1995), and artistic director of the New World Symphony Orchestra (which he founded in 1987). He was also the principal conductor of the London Symphony from 1988 to 1995, and since 1995, held the title of principal guest conductor.


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