Muscle and Finesse in Tilson Thomas’ Mahler

United StatesUnited States Mahler: San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco 30.3.2017. (HS)

Mahler — Adagio from Symphony No.10 in F sharp major; Symphony No. 1

From the opening measures, it was clear that this performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 would be something special. The several-octave quiet pedal tone provided a background glow over which wisps of coming melodies could play out for several minutes. Then the fog quickly cleared for the bird calls that pepper the opening pages, cuckoos and cheeps that seemed to come from nature itself, each one suggesting a different feathered friend peeping from the forest.

Heard in the first of four performances Wednesday night, the orchestra played like one that has internalized this music. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas – who recorded all of Mahler’s orchestral works with this orchestra over the past 16 years and programs a few in every season – finds extra nuances every time they return to these special-occasion pieces. (The results of this latest effort can also be heard April 8 at Carnegie Hall in New York.)

This time around Tilson Thomas found extra layers of suppleness and flexibility of pace, not exactly rubato but a sense that phrases will breathe better with a subtle ritard here, a quickening of the tempo there. It all felt totally organic, however, as if the music were doing the breathing itself. This gradually created tension below the surface, tightening the screws that made the explosions even more powerful.

Aside from a few uncharacteristic squirrelly high notes early on from the horns, the musicians distinguished themselves in every sense of the word. Not only did they respond to Tilson Thomas’ direction with precision and just the right degree of flexibility, but each moment in the spotlight contributed additional personality.

This was evident in the trumpet fanfares that interrupt the general glide of the first movement, in timpanist Edward Stephan’s urgent interjections in the frenetic finish to that movement, and in the woodwinds’ klezmer nods that arise from the sardonic funeral march of the third movement. Principal bass Scott Pingel’s statement of the minor-key “Frère Jacques” theme captured extra layers of pathos along with a wry smile, and the exchange among the various sections as the round stacked itself up was seamless.

Small details that can slip past unremarked added extra color. One moment in the third movement, for example, made magic as a cloud of soft harmonization in the strings floats serenely over the proceedings, lifting the somber mood briefly.

All of that was preliminary, however, to a finale that ratcheted up the intensity with each brass fanfare, eased back to catch a breath, and then climbed the mountain with greater potency. The final pages were exhilarating, the line of nine French horns standing to enunciate the broad final theme, the whole orchestra marching forth with purpose.

The Adagio from Symphony No. 10, the only portion Mahler completed before his death, opened the program with playing that was fine but not nearly as cohesive and seamless as what followed. The 30-minute sweep had its moments, but a sense of hesitation, even choppiness, kept the music from blooming as beautifully as it could. Repeated performances could smooth those edges.

Harvey Steiman

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