Mahler: Symphony No. 6

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
WORKS: Symphony No. 6
PERFORMER: San Francisco SO/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 821936-0001-2 (distr. Avie) (Hybrid SACD)
Whatever disorienting thoughts passed through the heads of these players and their conductor in the concerts of 12-15 September 2001 – and a finale in which two cataclysmic hammer-blows strike within minutes could not have been an easy movement to face – they kept their heads and came up with one of the most awe-inspiringly controlled interpretations this work can ever have received. Tilson Thomas’s command is total; he respects the basic tempi throughout, but applies a string of his own ritardandi, starting with the ‘Alma’ theme in the first movement, usually dictated by good musical sense. The marches move with grim, clear-headed determination, generous lyrical impulses billow, and the abnormalities of the scherzo are held up for detailed inspection. Whether the performance as we hear it on CD is different as a result of the circumstances in which it took place would be fatuous to say; though the climax of the Andante certainly takes wing in a way that would be difficult to manage in the recording studio.

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The ultimate distinction is due to the streamlined but always impactive sound of the San Francisco Symphony, with its brass ensembles superbly intoned from top to bottom of the registers and lithe, warm strings. The first horn in the third movement is a dream, and in the murk that precedes the final conflict, instrumental solos rear their monstrous heads with a magnified horror that surely owes much to Bernstein’s example. Even Bernstein, though, never had such full or truthful engineering to help him out; simply as sound, this has to be among the finest Mahler recordings ever made. David Nice