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Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
WORKS: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)
PERFORMER: Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano); San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 821936-0006-2
What a difference recorded sound makes to the panavision spectacular of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Would we buy Michael Tilson Thomas’s elongated funeral fires and judgement-day tattoos without the shattering impact of crystal-clear percussion and perhaps the most vivid brass sound I’ve ever heard in this medium? Possibly not; this is an interpretation so in love with its largesse, from the pulled-about glimpse of heaven minutes into the first movement onward, that only the seductive sonics typical of MTT’s San Francisco Mahler cycle could carry it off. The end result is dressed to impress, and that’s not enough when Abbado so evidently lives and feels every bar of the score. After the ecstasy of witnessing his Lucerne line-up of gilded youth and experienced orchestral soloists responsive and mobile on DVD (reviewed last month), though, there are problems with the CD engineering: strings far too close so that every player stands out in Mahler’s more refined writing, horns way back (a pale shadow of their incandescently lit counterparts in the San Francisco recording). Abbado’s ideally supple account of La mer (reviewed on DVD in December) has even dodgier moments: monster solo cellos as day waxes bright on Debussy’s sea and a weird spotlighting of consummate oboist Albrecht Mayer in the ‘Jeux de vagues’. If you can hear through the weird balances to the sophisticated beauty of the performance, though, you’ll be spellbound by Abbado’s increasingly compelling Mahler, a brisker alternative to the daring metaphysics of Resurrection king, Bernstein. The San Franciscans sound hawkish alongside the graceful humour of the Lucerne strings’ minuet and their luridly sinister woodwind in the scherzo. Tilson Thomas’s Lorraine Hunt, surprisingly, is less awe and compassion incarnate than Abbado’s Anna Larsson; and the one false note from Lucerne soprano Eteri Gvazava only momentarily distracts from the infinite vistas and velvety-awesome resurrection chorale that follow Abbado’s searing judgement-day panics. All that Tilson Thomas does is theatre, however resplendent; Abbado operates on levels of musicality that even his previous recordings could only dream about. David Nice