Mahler: Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 10 - Adagio
This release concludes Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony – at least so far as the symphonies are concerned. Viewed in its entirety, the project has yielded distinguished results, and is distinctive for its deft combination of lean sonority, clean playing, clear recording, probing insights and characterisation.
For those who have yet to encounter it, perhaps the best way to describe MTT’s Mahler is as a successful synthesis of Bernstein’s emotional exuberance and Michael Gielen’s trenchant modernism. One of the intriguing characteristics of this version of the Eighth is its striking juxtaposition – rather than synthesis – of these two facets.
For nearly four decades, the classic recording of Mahler’s Eighth has been Sir Georg Solti’s 1971 Decca account. Its strengths – brilliant playing, spectacular sound, an immensely impressive vocal line-up, and an unfailingly dynamic and energetic conception – make so powerful an impression that all other recordings had seemed less comprehensive and coherent by comparison. Tilson Thomas’s is the first I have heard that successfully resists being heard on Solti’s terms.
There are naturally many passages in which drive and decibels are required, and here the new version does not disappoint, aided as it is by remarkably transparent yet impactful recorded sound. In Part II, however, Tilson Thomas manages to create a sense of rapt introspection and untroubled serenity far removed from the more tangible and portentous lyricism Solti tends to provide in quiet passages.
Tilson Thomas is right to notice that Mahler’s dynamic markings in much of Part II are piano or pianissimo, but it is to his credit that he observes such instructions not dutifully but rather as a means of finding new expressive dimensions in this work.
Never before has this music seemed so delicate and concentrated, so redolent of the magical intimacy of chamber music. This approach has large-scale advantages as well – for example, it permits Tilson Thomas to conclude with a gradated crescendo in which the orchestral postlude emerges as even more powerful than the choral passage that precedes it.
My only significant disappointment is with the singing of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (too soft-grained and tremulous for moments of ecstatic lyricism) and the bass James Morris (who has insufficient tonal gravitas and focus compared to his counterpart on the Solti recording, Martti Talvela). Even so this is one of the most consistently satisfying and stimulating Mahler Eighths, one that manages to make Solti’s account seem one-dimensionally energetic. David Breckbill