Friday, November 26, 2004

Mahler's second coming at the Symphony:
MTT's new Resurrection

The label "Resurrection" has stuck to Mahler's great Second Symphony like a presage. More than an implicit association with the content of this opus, each generation since Mahler's has felt compelled to rediscover this piece on its own terms, pondering upon its timeless meaning, obsessing over its vast dimensions, and marveling in the miraculous manner by which it connects with the human experience. Just ask the millionaire American investment banker Gilbert Kaplan, who during the fat years of the late 20th century used his own cash to book Carnegie Hall (and hire an orchestra and chorus) to put on his own performances -- very legitimate, it turns out -- of the great Resurrection.

A quick search on the net will reveal that there are well over one hundred documented recordings of Gustav Mahler's great Second Symphony in existence, with several of them still in print. Still, one can only welcome the latest addition to this work's lengthy catalog by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, with the SF Symphony Chorus and soloists Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Isabel Bayrakdarian.

[An excerpt from the 4th movement "Urlicht" of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 by the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas; June 2004 broadcast version. Offered by kind permission from the SF Symphony, all rights reserved.]

Released under the Symphony's own SFS Media label as part of Michael Tilson Thomas' highly acclaimed cycle of Mahler symphonies, this is actually the SF Symphony's second recording of this massive work. In 1992, the Symphony under then music director Herbert Blomstedt enjoyed an exclusive recording contract with Decca/London, and released a very fine commercial recording with the orchestra, chorus and soloists Charlotte Hellekant and Ruth Ziesak. Appropriately enough, it also marked something of an observance of the rebirth of Davies Hall, after a massive acoustical revamp.

So what does Tilson Thomas offers this time, that Herbert Blomstedt or others haven't already? On the surface, Blomstedt's tempi are generally much faster than those of MTT. The former maestro offers a rich, thick and liquid rendition of the score, tinged with more than an occasional hint of the dense Scandinavian flavor, accentuated by Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant's full-bodied sound.

MTT's new version offers a more ample, airy feel, where the heavily layered Mahlerian textures emerge with crystalline clarity, with contrasts sharpened and thunderous climaxes rendered in beautiful control and poise. Aided by a strong sense of pulse, separate elements and individual events are rendered with superb definition within Mahler's massive architecture.

As if for the first time, the listener readily notes the ominous presence of the fatidic horn calls in the early movements; or the impossible sweetness of the wistful, heaven bound melodies. At Mahler's magnificent apocalyptical landscapes, some might prefer the frenzied chaos and abandon of the Blomstedt version, but to my ears, his approach begins to sound a bit more dated than the mere 12 years since its execution might suggest.

While MTT's reading does sounds more analytical, it is nonetheless every bit as emotionally wrenching and spiritually edifying as any reading of this piece I am familiar with. Rather than stifleness, one suspects that the vibrancy and immediacy of the current reading rather comes from the clear sense of structure it provides. And above all, MTT's scored big time in his choice of Bay Area mezzo Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson as the soloist (along with a more modest contribution by the young Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian). Hunt-Lieberson's rendering of the luminous Urlicht is one of unbearable poignancy and closeness to the heart. Paired with the distant horns and William Bennett's touching oboe obbligato, the performance becomes a breathtaking musical moment.

© 2004 C. Chang

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