Mahler 8/Michael Tilson Thomas

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.8
Symphony No.10 – Adagio

Erin Wall (soprano, Magna Peccatrix)
Elza van den Heever (soprano, Una Poenitentium)
Laura Claycomb (soprano, Mater Gloriosa)
Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana)
Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano, Maria Aegyptiaca)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor, Doctor Marianus)
Quinn Kelsey (baritone, Pater Ecstaticus)
James Morris (bass, Pater Profundus)

San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Pacific Boychoir
San Francisco Girls Chorus

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Recorded 19-23 November 2008 (Symphony No.8) and 6-8 April 2006 in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: December 2009
821936-0021-2 (2 SACDs/CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 52 minutes



This is the final symphonic release in Michael Tilson Thomas’s series of Mahler’s works for voices, chorus and orchestra with the San Francisco Symphony. Recorded at concerts, the series includes “Das Lied von der Erde” and “Das klagende Lied” (re-mastered from an RCA release), with a further release of orchestral songs to come in 2010. The Tenth Symphony, however, is represented only by its Adagio, included on the first of this two-disc set.

The Eighth Symphony opens promisingly with an energetic account of the “Veni, creator spiritus” theme, underpinned by clear and eloquent choral singing, a sonorous organ sound and surging violins. The vocal soloists are expressive and well balanced, and the section beginning “Infirma nostri corporis” conveys a sense of ancient ritual (aided by a particularly atmospheric bell), leading to a well-played and vivid account of the orchestral passage at figure 23. However, I found the interpretation less involving in the vigorous polyphonic writing that follows the chorus’s ecstatic shout of “Accende”. Choir, orchestra and soloists are individually expressive, but the performance fails to convey the headlong rush of energy that is an essential element of the music. Despite Tilson Thomas’s lively tempos, the lengthy double fugue, the restatement of “Veni, creator spiritus” and the movement’s tremendous coda similarly fail to ignite. By contrast, the recordings by Bernstein (DG) and Solti (Decca) are electrifying in these pages.

Tilson Thomas’s tempo for the orchestral introduction to Part 2 (marked Poco adagio) is unusually measured, taking 11’32” to reach the chorus’s first entry of “Waldung” compared with 10’06” for Solti and 9’47” for Bernstein. However, the result is eloquent and compelling, a result of careful phrasing and responsive playing. Similar qualities inform the moment when Mater Gloriosa comes into view (harmonium, violins and harp ideally balanced) and the passage leading to the chorus’s first hushed “Alles Vergängliche”. As with the first movement, however, I found Tilson Thomas’s interpretation less effective in conveying the music’s joy and exultation, the closing pages in particular sounding stately rather than elemental.

The choral and orchestral contributions are uniformly committed, with particularly fine solos from first violin, horn and clarinet. Among the soloists, Erin Wall, Yvonne Naef and Quinn Kelsey stand out for their identification with the music, although James Morris, who is otherwise impressive in Part 1, seems distinctly uncomfortable with the difficult vocal writing of Pater Profundus in Part 2.

Tilson Thomas’s account of the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony has an expressive intensity that makes one regret his decision not to record one of the performing editions of the complete work. The running time of 27’41” suggests a slow tempo, but Tilson Thomas sustains a firm sense of line throughout. The main Adagio theme for strings and trombones is warm and involving, and elsewhere the performance communicates an apt sense of loneliness and desolation.

The recording of both works has a wide frequency response and a vivid sense of place, particularly in the ‘surround sound’ option, with antiphonal violins clearly in evidence. The acoustic, however, has an emphasis in the treble range that sometimes gives an unpleasant edge to upper instruments and vocals. The booklet note includes a typically authoritative essay from the late Michael Steinberg as well as texts and translations. It would have been helpful, however, if track numbers had been included at relevant points in the text.

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