Berg and Mahler Caught for a New Recording

26/03/2018

Berg, Mahler: Gil Shaham (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 23.3.2018. (HS)

Berg — Violin Concerto
Mahler — Symphony No.5

In his 23 years leading the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas has shown a passion, even an obsession, of making programs that reflect links between the works on display. With the conductor’s sure hand, and clear and responsive playing from the orchestra, the influence of Mahler on Berg came through like a beacon in both the former’s Symphony No. 5 and the latter’s Concerto for Violin.

This orchestra and conductor can roil up all the juices in Mahler, and the traversal of the Fifth, heard Friday evening, in the second of four performances in Davies Symphony Hall, revealed freshness and vitality. The Berg concerto opened the proceedings, with Gil Shaham voicing the solo line with uncanny naturalness.

If, as some believe, the inspiration for Berg’s quiet opening to the concerto came from the Mahler Fifth’s famously tranquil Adagietto, there was no mistaking the connection here. The concerto opens with the soloist and the harp tentatively establishing a bond. In the Adagietto, harp and strings edge into a flow that supports one of Mahler’s longest and most languid Romantic melodies.

That sense of halting acceptance colored Tilson Thomas’ approach to the initial measures of the symphony, adding a little extra hesitation to the slow upbeats of the funeral march’s melody each time it appeared. A relatively slow tempo for this opening movement produced a stronger contrast with the livelier scherzo that follows, as well as the surge to triumph in the glorious finale.

A more obvious connection is that both Berg and Mahler use the traditional Romantic symphonic device of a chorale to spread a balm over troubled waters as both works close. Berg’s chorale brings a peaceful aura to music with nervous underpinnings. Mahler introduces his chorales with the funeral march and brings them back in triumph at the very end.

Since the concerto was being recorded for future release on SFS Media, Shaham used a score and aimed for simplicity and grace, employing an especially supple approach, even in thornier moments. From this emerged a lapidary cadenza that bridged to the finale. The resuting recording is likely to warm hearts.

The glories of the Mahler, as always happens with this orchestra, included a parade of beautifully wrought individual moments. From the top, principal trumpet Mark Inouye shaped the solo fanfare with subtle dynamics and pearl-like tone, each recurrence throughout the movement ringing with both familiarity and a fresh spin. Principal horn Robert Ward spun out liquid gold in his exposed solos and led a rambunctious contribution from the whole row. The entire percussion section added their commentary with panache and restraint, except when a punch from the bass drum or a timpani restating a recurring gesture with a sense of presence.

The string principals emerged in the scherzo with a snappy pizzicato section, as if a first-class quartet had wandered onto the scene.

Conducting without a score, Tilson Thomas hit all the right marks, loose and improvisational. He controlled pace, dynamics, subtle rubato and sustained richness of tone to create a seamless flow. Climaxes built slowly and organically. Those final iterations of the chorales wrapped the audience in a warm embrace, until the stabs of the last few chords.

Harvey Steiman

The orchestra and Shaham take this program on a short tour of southern California March 27 to 29, with performances in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa.

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