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San Francisco Symphony’s Magnificent Mahler

Mahler Symphony No. 8/Adagio from Symphony No. 10

August 24, 2009

San Francisco Symphony

With the exultant opening exclamation of “Veni, creator spiritus,” the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus recapture the torrential excitement they unleashed in their November 2008 performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Davies Symphony Hall. In one sense, that shouldn’t surprise. This recording, like the others in conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ magnificent Mahler cycle, was set down live during those concerts last fall. But live CDs, as expectantly primed listeners sometimes discover, don’t always deliver a comparable impact outside a full concert hall.

The risk of that may be especially great with this intrinsically dramatic work, which deploys a mighty orchestra (abetted by seven offstage brass players), an adult and two youth choirs, and eight vocal soloists. It’s all put in the service of a grandly aspiring work that fuses a fervent Pentecostal hymn text to the spiritually expansive mountaintop climax of Goethe’s Faust. As the late Michael Steinberg wrote of the work, “This symphony, like Faust itself, is something to be lived with for a long time so that the richly intricate network of references and allusions might take on clarity.”

The gratifying wonder of this Mahler Eighth recording is how integrated and tightly wrought it all seems. The five movements of Part I, devoted to the eighth-century Christian hymn, pour forth in a stream of choral ecstasy, orchestral agitation and balm, and a skein of solo virtuosity. The women soloists make an especially vivid impact. Tilson Thomas brings it all to a gleaming height on the line that translates from the Latin as “Kindle our Reason with Light,” pointing the way to Goethe’s probing drama in Part II.

The Faust section opens with an evocative stretch of orchestral scene painting — “Mountain glens, forest, rock, solitude,” as the German text describes. Here, as though infused with the spirituality of the symphony’s opening, the musicians summon a world that seems to glow from within. Glossy string tone, amber brasses, and haunting woodwind calls conjure imaginary vistas at once broad and deep.

Listen to the Music

Symphony No. 8 In E-Flat Major:
Part I - I. Veni, Creator Spiritus

Part I - IV. Gloria Patri Domino
As Part II proceeds, through its disquisitions by Goethe’s spiritual guides, angelic adult choirs, softly radiant contributions from the Pacific Boychoir and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and delicately latticed orchestral bridges, Tilson Thomas continues to elicit both the thematic echoes and the anticipatory ascension of the work. In one especially transporting sequence, the inspired tenor Anthony Dean Griffey opens up Doctor Marianus’ “clear” view, where “the spirit is uplifted.” The Choir of Blessed Children that arrives shortly thereafter seems divinely summoned. The exquisitely rendered climb to the mighty end of the piece that begins with Griffey’s call to “Look up” stands with the very best of Tilson Thomas’ considerable Mahler achievements.

 As if this spacious and embracing symphony weren’t enough for this CD, the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th Symphony serves as a 28-minute curtain raiser. Tilson Thomas and his forces do some gorgeous work here, especially in the long, lyrical arches that Mahler extends through his suspended, heart-struck harmonies. The strings and brasses take on a choral richness in their full utterances. Only the woodwinds, which seem to lack a measure of vigor and bite, detract from an otherwise fine account.

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Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.