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on 23 November 2011
If you are a Mahler lover, this DVD set is essential. We are guided through the life and work of Gustav Mahler by a world-class conductor who is also a Mahler lover. And if you are new to Mahler, you learn a lot about his work and you will certainly enjoy the first symphony, which is in the second DVD.

A really wonderful work. Thank you!
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This was the first of Michael Tilson Thomas's `Keeping Score' DVDs that I purchased, and it was so good I have started to purchase the set. Even my other half, who is not particularly musically-minded, sat on the sofa with me and occasionally raised his head from the crossword he was doing and paid some attention.

This set concentrates on Mahler's first symphony, with Tilson Thomas interweaving his early life with the construction and elaboration of the symphony. He takes us through movement by movement. I learned so much that was new, such as how the actual cuckoo call is altered to comply with the fourths that dominate the symphony, or that a turning-phrase borrowed from his `Songs of a Wayfarer' re-appears in his ninth symphony. Surprisingly, though, for a DVD that purports to be educational, Tilson Thomas makes no mention of the `Blumine' movement that Mahler later withdrew.

The first part of the film, the part that concentrates on the first symphony, takes up sixty minutes. The remainder follows Mahler's remaining career and his legacy. In the film, Tilson Thomas visits Mahler's old haunts in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Highlights include Iglau (Jihlava) where Mahler had his childhood and also his later summer house on the Worthersee, where we even get the rare treat of seeing its interior. I was particularly struck how Tilson Thomas used the geography of Iglau's central square as a metaphor for the intertwining aspects of Mahler's own music.

Another insight by Tilson Thomas was his commentary on Mahler's later symphonies, seeing them in cinematic form, embracing close-ups and widescreen perspectives, and seeing each symphony as telling a complete story. Tilson Thomas cleverly inserts into his film excerpts from silent German classic movies, implicitly asserting that Mahler was the writer of film soundtracks before films had them. True, there is also much speculation about Mahler's early life and what he may or may not have thought or felt when composing his first symphony, but I can forgive Tilson Thomas's occasionally suggestions portrayed as fact.

This is very much a Tilson Thomas-led show, and he is a superb communicator. But there are numerous contributions too from the likes of Thomas Hampson and Susan Graham, as well as very insightful remarks from individual players of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. These latter are of immense value as they show us the music from the point of view of the players themselves.

The DVD set comes with generous extras. As well as a couple of `making of' featurettes, we have two concert performances: first, Mahler's first symphony; the second, the complete `Songs of a Wayfarer' together with the adagietto from the fifth symphony, the scherzo from the seventh, and the rondo burleske from the ninth. All in all, then, this is an excellent passage. Both those new to Mahler and those like me who are fans will glean much from the words of Tilson Thomas and his team.
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