Resurrecting Mahler: San Francisco Symphony Perform Mahler’s Second and Ninth Symphonies

Mahler, Symphonies 9 and 2: San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 7-8.5.2011 (HS)

In an unusual bit of programming, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony warmed up for their upcoming European tour while simultaneously honoring the 100th anniversary of the death of the composer Gustav Mahler, and scheduled festival-like performances of two evening-long symphonies on successive pairs of evenings. That this happened to coincide with the completion of their much-lauded Mahler Project, which involved recordings of all the symphonies and song cycles made over the past decade – well, score that as a publicity coup.

The orchestra takes its Mahler into the heart of the beast later this month, traveling to Vienna to give performances of these two symphonies plus the Sixth (which gets its preview here in regular subscription concerts next weekend). Prague, Luxembourg, Essen, Paris, Barcelona and Madrid will also hear one or more of them.

On display this past weekend, in two performances of the Ninth followed by two of the Second, were all the salient aspects of this collaboration between Tilson Thomas, his orchestra and Mahler. Like the recordings, these performances imposed no willful glosses on the music, no attempts to pretty up their rough patches or soften any hard edges. The loud parts might have blared a bit, but that only made the beautiful moments that came later even more breathtaking. If each of Mahler’s symphonies creates a world of its own, as the composer famously said he intended, then these are untidy worlds where multiple musical forms and sounds can clash dissonantly or awkwardly, only to coalesce into something unexpectedly beautiful.

Having just completed the 10-year recording and performance project plus two outstanding documentary hours on the composer as part of the orchestra’s “Keeping Score” DVD series (seen on the Public Broadcasting Service in the U.S.), the musicians couldn’t be more familiar with this music. Their comfort level allowed them to blossom individually, in one startling moment after another.

There was a palpable sense of trust between conductor and orchestra in these concerts. Each musician, each section, clearly had leeway to bring their own flair to every moment, the result being a refreshing sense of improvisation that infused the music with nothing less than the essence of life. That was especially evident in the Ninth, heard Friday, wherein Mahler’s preoccupation was with the end of life. Outbursts from the brass and woodwinds in the first three movements often had a raucous cast, louder and harsher that we might be used to hearing them, but that only served to make these specters of death even more frightening. Solo turns brimmed with personality – some soulful, some rueful, others sardonic. At times it seemed like Mahler by way of Shostakovich.

The payoff came in the finale, conducted as if in one long breath, and shimmering with beauty in phrase after phrase. The strings were especially vibrant. They enunciated the chorale early in the movement with richness of tone and a nobility that contrasted with the jittery angst that preceded it. The violins, in pianissimo on the cusp of audibility, closed the book in the final pages with ethereal finesse that, I admit it, brought a few tears. In between there were superb solo contributions from principal trumpet Mark Inouye and principal horn Robert Ward, who not only articulated their treacherous octave leaps with soft tone and accuracy but made them mean something. The woodwinds, especially the flute section and piccolo Catherine Payne, added dazzling color. Through it all, Tilson Thomas shepherded the slow rhythm with sustained intensity. This was riveting stuff.

The Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” heard Saturday, flowed with a naturalness that one seldom encounters in this music. With tempos judged with uncanny precision, Tilson Thomas seemed to tap into some cosmic, irresistible rhythmic flow. The opening movement, after its rapid-fire outbursts in the strings, caught a steady rhythm in the material that followed that made it feel richer than the funeral march at its core.

This rhythmic flow was especially beguiling in the three central movements. The ländler began with the gentlest of bounces. The third movement Scherzo had a swagger that added extra zest to the sardonic version of the song that provided the thematic material (a Wunderhorn song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes). Even the fourth movement, the transcendent “Urlicht,” had a subterranean impulse that kept it moving inexorably. Dark-voiced mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, her emphasis on the text, made it moving in her own way.

In the finale, a gentle sway made the recurring fanfares into something buoyant. Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin sang the text about vanquishing pain and death with the necessary fervor and stretched the musical line above the staff with wonderful legato. The chorus’ entrance could have been more stealthy; I like it when conductors let the pianissimo chorale emerge before the singers actually stand up, so it comes out of nowhere. Tilson Thomas did not do that, with the result that the chorus became the focus from the very first notes. They delivered their music with richness and passion, and it all came together to as glorious a closing peroration as anyone could ask for.

Harvey Steiman