Mahler: Symphony No. 1

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 821936-0002-2

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Michael Tilson Thomas’s occasional extravagance of gesture was easily absorbed by the overall discipline of his breathtaking Mahler Sixth (reviewed June 2002), a grim fanfare to this handsome, limited-edition live cycle from San Francisco. It would have been out of place in three-quarters of the First Symphony, and fortunately the conductor’s deep affection for the naive in music informs an approach to Mahler’s ‘days of youth’ (as he originally subtitled the first and second movements) which stays light of hand and heart. It helps that the San Francisco sound, so sleek and genial, comes close to the freshness of Kubelík’s unsurpassable Bavarians. These cellos are the most caressing companions imaginable for the young wayfarer as he crosses the spring scene; the horns, warm and subtle throughout, intone their central song with ineffable humanity and only the momentary tension of the first-movement climax is stretched to its limits, with Tilson Thomas initiating a slow crescendo several bars earlier than Mahler asks. There’s no swooning over the scherzo’s trio, though every glissando is beautifully in place. Perhaps the murky canon of the ensuing funeral procession is a little too perfectly intoned; but the klezmer dance-music that breaks across it sways and springs with a sure touch typical of the performance. Having then seared us with the opening cry of the finale, Tilson Thomas holds both the determined march and its sequel, here a very vocal love song, on a tight rein and hammers home the inevitable triumph; if there’s one nail too many here, the youthful excess of Mahler gives the cue. Gleaming sound, as with the Sixth, makes us eager to follow where this wide-eyed interpretation so assuredly leads. David Nice