Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler: the Best Saved Till Last

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mahler: Sasha Cooke (mezzo soprano), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.3.2014. (JPr)

MahlerSymphony No.3 in D minor

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra returned to the Royal Festival Hall for the first time in 19 years and this was the second of the two concerts they presented. The orchestra is renowned for its performances of Mahler and has won seven Grammy Awards for its Mahler cycle conducted by its musical director, Michael Tilson Thomas. This was also all part of BBC Radio 3 Live at Southbank Centre, a ground-breaking two-week residency which brings a pop-up studio to Royal Festival Hall’s Riverside Café, from where BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting its entire schedule until Monday 31st March.

Any readers of mine will know I am not a great listener to recorded classical music and am not qualified to say whether the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler releases have deserved all their praise. I can only comment on my reaction to this live performance with which, unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed. The best Mahler 3s should transport the listener somewhere beyond the conscious – and for large stretches of it this performance didn’t achieve that for me. Mahler composed this symphony several decades before the 1960’s Flower Power generation and its LSD with its hallucinogenic properties – I know nothing about these type of drugs (honestly!) but Mahler’s Third Symphony when performed well can be the musical equivalent of the ‘trip’ of a lifetime. Just think about all those programmatic ideas Mahler originally had for the six movements (such as ‘What the meadow flowers tell me’, ‘What the creatures of the forest tell me’, ‘What love tells me’) and we are deep into the mind-set of the hedonistic Age of Aquarius and, of course, the Flower Power movement had its iconic centre in the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco, one of my favourite cities.

It was not clear who was responsible for the programme note but it quoted Mahler’s own words for his opening movement when ‘he explained “over this introduction lies an atmosphere of brooding summer heat: not a breath stirs, all life is suspended and the sun-drenched air trembles and vibrates.” This raises the curtain on a vast structure – a cathedral of Nature – propelled by a series of march-like ideas evoking the procession of summer. Even the occasional dark episode, suggestive of something sinister waiting in the woodland shadows, cannot silence this Dionysian celebration of the natural world.’ Unfortunately during the 36-minute span of Part I – longer than many complete symphonies – I never experienced any of this, despite some fine playing, including the first of many virtuosic contributions from concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. The sound from the orchestra had an emotionally detached CD quality to it – for me it was too refined and lacked the ‘anything can happen’ spontaneity I love from a live performance.

Then after a brief pause came Part II, that is the Third Symphony’s remaining five movements. The second movement is a minuet that involves mostly the harps and loads of schmaltz from the violins but here I never felt transported to the Austrian countryside as I should. The third movement’s centrepiece was the offstage contribution by trumpeter Mark Inouye with his ‘posthorn’ solo that is a bit like an extended Alpine folk song. It must lull listeners into a dreamworld that could not have been composed by anyone other than Mahler. Although beautifully played I had no sense of reverie from this because the sound was too immediate and needed more spatial separation from the rest of the orchestra.

It was now time for the first of the Third Symphony’s vocal movements and the performance improved immeasurably. With the dissonant E-flat minor chord a sort of ironic climax is reached allowing a convincing transition into the ‘Midnight Song’. Sasha Cooke was the exceptional soloist and sang Nietzsche’s words for ‘O Mensch! Gib Acht!’ hauntingly, with careful diction, and operatically in the way I favour. Symptomatic of the general cultivated sound from all concerned was that the night-bird – as heard from the hinaufziehen figure for the oboe – chirruped rather than screeched, as it must. The Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus and the Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral (‘bim-bam’-ing with gusto) took over for the short fifth movement and sang with a sweet angelic charm that was perfectly balanced for the Royal Festival Hall. This set us all up nicely for a deeply affecting Adagio and the final movement that is probably difficult to mess up anyway.

So now I will continue with one of the leitmotifs of my Mahler reviews – the connection between the composer and a contemporary of his, Richard Wagner. I believe it was Julian Johnson who said about Mahler’s Third Symphony that it ‘grows out of an understanding of art as a kind of religious and philosophical quest’ and associated it with Mahler’s reaction to seeing Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1883 when he commented ‘I can hardly describe my present state to you. When I came out of the Festspielhaus, completely spellbound, I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life’. Some conductors and many (too many?) musicologists ignore Wagner’s influence on Mahler but others like Michael Tilson Thomas – who early in his life was an assistant conductor at Bayreuth – clearly recognise Wagner’s influence.

As the Adagio finale unfolds towards its Schopenhauerian conclusion – where both the world and its earthly love is renounced – I revelled in the Wagnerian sounds coming from the strings; the lower ones clearly recalling Parsifal and the upper ones Lohengrin. The deeply consoling D major hymn we hear is made all the more poignant because it clearly inspired Sammy Fain’s opening music to the 1930’s song ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ (subsequently notably associated with Liberace).  Michael Tilson Thomas’s controlled conducting allowed real tension to build up that was only released with the tremendous orchestral outburst – particularly from the San Francisco Symphony’s burnished brass – at the third climax. Mahler brings us his vision of heaven and divine love in some heartrendingly beautiful passages that culminate in the wonderful coda: with the orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas now finally doing was they are famed for, it had a powerful frisson.

Jim Pritchard

For more about events at the Southbank Centre visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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