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rjmcr (manchester, uk)

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Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Price: £17.13

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tennstedt's 'joyful wisdom', 20 Sept. 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (Audio CD)
Not for the first time, I find myself in enthusiastic agreement with Mahlerian Duck and Andreas on yet another fine Tennstedt release.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the performance, let's pick up on the sound issues that the other reviewers have mentioned.

The ICA Classics website promotes this release as being recorded in `state of the art' sound. If the `art' in question is trying to get some kind of response out of the RFH's notoriously dead acoustic for a BBC radio broadcast back in 1986, well, then yes, perhaps this is almost as good as can be expected. The sound is a little opaque, quite bass-heavy and there is a very slight analogue hiss. It sounds as if the BBC team have closely-miked the key instrumental soloists, which makes the woodwind sound very prominent, whilst Waltraud Meier seems to have been miked from above, which can give the aural impression of her being lower than the orchestra. On the other hand, the choirs are very well-recorded with clear placing of the LPO ladies and the Eton boys. So, while this is clearly not an audiophile choice, neither is it disfigured to the point of being unlistenable, nor even, I would say, distracting. It's on a par with many contemporary live RFH recordings and way, way better than the BBC's 1999 Abbado Mahler 3 which DG released. Previous digital releases of symphonies 2 and 8 from LPO have spoiled us. These are historical archive recordings from a quarter of a century ago; it's all about the performance.

And what a performance! I have long been an admirer of Tennstedt's studio recording of this piece, with only a slight lack of first movement ebullience and indifferent sound giving cause for reservation. This time around, he nails the first movement - triumphantly! The eight unison horns at the start (the late, great Nicholas Busch and his team) demand your attention, which is then amply rewarded by playing of unbelievable character and conviction throughout the orchestra. It's as if Tennstedt has assigned each player a role in nature, a particular animal or flower to portray. The cumulative effect is extraordinarily intense, and - no question - the most viscerally exciting first movement I've heard.

As in the studio recording, the performance gets even better as it unfolds. The second movement is dizzyingly brilliant. It's hard to comprehend how a conductor with such a notoriously vague beat can elicit playing of such virtuosic agility as is on display here. The close-miking of the woodwinds actually pays off now, as they were always a superb part of Tennstedt's LPO, and this is a great vehicle for them. The basic tempo is swift but the many tempo changes within are seamless and natural, building a momentum which sounds utterly spontaneous and yet speaks of thorough rehearsal. It's packed with detail and yet never obsessed with it.

The same is true of the third movement, and, even if the `posthorn' solo belies a little tension of the live event, the accumulation of contrasts up to that point renders it a deeply moving moment; it has never brought a tear to my eye before. Tennstedt then wraps it up with a hair-raising final few bars; swirling harps and portentous horns at the `rearing up of nature' moment, followed by a volcanic coda.

It's a dire warning indeed (Erda-esque, in fact!) which a young Waltraud Meier issues in the fourth movement Nietzche song, and one to which initially I didn't respond. I don't think the recording helps here as the spotlighting of the woodwinds tends to break the spell a little (as does the change of disc - I do wish record companies would put the last five movements on CD2 instead of splitting the work three apiece. By the way, the inlay booklet omits the texts). I still prefer Bernstein's Christa Ludwig (DG) and Levine's Marilyn Horne (RCA) - and today's Waltraud Meier would bring another 25 years of experience to bear - but she is vocally secure, compelling and very much in the spirit of Tennstedt's vivid overall conception.

A joyous, beautifully sung and well-recorded fifth movement melts into the start of a finale which is so fervently passionate and crowns the work so well that it makes Mahler's most ambitious and sprawling work seem concise and coherent. Across the entire symphony the sense of an `ascent' through creation is clearer than ever, and that makes for a profoundly intense and very special listening experience. I will even chance my arm and state that this is very possibly Tennstedt's greatest live Mahler recording and I whole-heartedly recommend it.

As if that wasn't enough, we get nearly six minutes of what one presumes was a longer interview between Tennstedt and BBC R3's Michael Oliver, from 1987, in which he discusses his interpretative approach to Mahler, particularly in respect of the Sixth Symphony. I'm not sure whether this was before or after his illness-enforced resignation but his voice is already hoarse and broken as he suggests - in his heavily-accented English - that maybe he has `a little bit of Mahler' in his character. On this evidence, more than a little, I would say.

An invaluable release.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2012 4:06 PM GMT

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 - LSO / Gergiev (SACD Hybrid)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3 - LSO / Gergiev (SACD Hybrid)
Price: £15.37

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Third rate, 16 Sept. 2011
My word, this is bad.

Each to their own opinion, of course, but how the newspaper reviewers quoted above can talk of `long-breathed phraseology', `spiritual wholeness' and `a compelling view... played with such total beauty' is utterly beyond me.

This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most flat-footed, uninvolved and charmless account of any Mahler symphony I've heard. Not once do I get the sense that Gergiev has any kind of vision of this piece or empathy with what Mahler was trying to express. The whole performance strikes me as terribly episodic, such as one would expect from a studio recording made in very short takes. This robs the difficult first movement of any accumulation of tension and excitement; a failing that will always put any performance of this work on the back foot. If the emotional pay-off of the last movement also fails, well, you really are in trouble.

In between, the second and third movements offer plenty of opportunity for an orchestra to demonstrate rhythmic panache and instrumental virtuosity (listen to what Bernstein, Levine, Abbado or Tennstedt can conjure up here). Gergiev doesn't seem to be able or willing to inspire his London players to do either. Tempo changes in the second movement are awkward and clunky, and the playing - whilst acceptably competent - is simply anonymous and disengaged. Credit where it's due though; the `posthorn' solo in the third movement is faultless and well-placed.

The fourth movement finds Gergiev too eager to press on, and attentive listeners will notice him moaning and groaning along in an unwanted and deeply distracting vocal accompaniment! I was not especially impressed by Anna Larsson's contribution, either. Live in the hall, I probably would not have been disappointed but, if you are going to commit a performance to disc, you have to expect comparisons and here she is found wanting, not just in comparison to Christa Ludwig or Marilyn Horne (still my favourites, for Bernstein and Levine respectively) but also in comparison to her younger self on Abbado's 1999 DG set. For Gergiev, her tone sounds thinner and less secure. It may just be the recording; I do hope so.

The fifth movement is, I think, the most successful: well-played; spirited; well-sung. However, 4 minutes of success on a 92-minute CD is hardly a good rate of return.

Gergiev tends to get quicker towards the end of each movement, most noticeably at the end of a literal and soulless final movement, where he even outdoes Rattle in his sudden burst of speed for the finishing line. In one sense I was relieved as I couldn't wait to get this wretched recording over with either.

For what it's worth, the sound is not as dry as some Barbican recordings but it is very close and lacks width.

The Third may not be the most popular Mahler symphony but I think it tells you an awful lot about a conductor's `feeling' for his music. Bernstein ( Mahler: Symphony No.3 and as part of Mahler: The Symphonies ), Levine ( Mahler: Symphony 3 and as part of Mahler: Symphonies 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 ) and Tennstedt ( Mahler: Symphony No. 3 ) have it in spades; Abbado to a lesser extent in this symphony, at least ( Mahler: Symphony No.3 ). Gergiev is nowhere near.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 14, 2015 7:34 PM BST

Mahler: Symphony No. 8
Mahler: Symphony No. 8
Price: £13.23

33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The essence of Mahler. The magic of Tennstedt. The spirit of ecstacy., 5 Mar. 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (Audio CD)
There must be many people out there who read glowing reviews of Tennstedt's Mahler recordings and then opt for the EMI box set, thinking they have a bargain: I wonder how many are disappointed. The EMI box is competitively priced but the cycle as a whole is uneven and suffers from indifferent sound. No, for me the seeds of Tennstedt's ever-increasing reputation as a first-rate Mahlerian were sown in his extraordinary concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, especially after his return from serious illness in the late-Eighties. His three performances of the Eighth Symphony in January 1991 - the first of which is recorded here - are now the stuff of legend.

The Eighth is undoubtedly the highlight of Tennstedt's studio cycle - a worthy Gramophone Award winner, and a favourite of mine for many years - but I think it is surpassed in just about every way by this new live recording. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a new benchmark.

Of the eight soloists, only Trudeliese Schmidt and Hans Sotin are carried over from the studio set. Initially I was disappointed to lose Richard Versalle's excellent Doctor Marianus but I have quickly adjusted to Kenneth Riegel's unusual style of attack and gone on to find a great deal to admire in his portrayal. He consistently hits and sustains the top notes, whether at full throttle or using just his head voice. He may not have the most beautiful tone but it's a thrill to hear the role really attacked and sung with gusto and confidence. The other big surprise is Jadwiga Rappe who - together with Schmidt - brings some real character and colour to the alto parts; many of their rivals struggle to make an impact, I always think. However, this solo team really scores with the sopranos. The endless lung-power of Varady and Eaglen is worth a gold star all on its own! They really open the taps from about halfway through 'Accende...' and the way they (with Riegel) ride the crest of Tennstedt's enormous tidal wave of sound at the return of 'Veni...' is simply jaw-dropping. Eaglen goes on to give us a sublime and youthful Gretchen in Part II. The cherry on top of this rather wonderful cake is a young Susan Bullock, who gives the best Mater Gloriosa I've ever heard. Her short and perilously exposed solo is delivered with a rare surety. They all combine beautifully to give us the most characterful and competent solo team on record, and they are placed further forward than in the studio set so they sound better balanced with the choirs and orchestra: they are always audible.

One criticism often levelled at the studio set is the size of the chorus. Personally, I never had a problem with it but there should be no equivocations with this new recording as the LPO Choir is joined by the LSO Chorus, and what a sound they make! They must have been drilled to within an inch of their lives, and it shows; clear diction, crisp attack and a combined volume that will shake the tiles from your roof. Above all, they sound like they're enjoying every minute - a vital element that's hard to recreate during studio sessions. The Eton boys - whom Tennstedt famously told to sing like football hooligans! - sound like they've been trained by Fagin and, for me, that means they're bang on the money!

I won't go into detail on the orchestral playing. Suffice it to say that Tennstedt and the LPO was one of the great - and, sadly, all too brief - musical partnerships of the Twentieth Century. Care, attention to detail, passion and sincerity colour every bar of their playing. Of the great man himself, well, his way with Mahler in general and the Eighth in particular has always seemed instinctively right to me. This live performance finds him only a touch more expansive than on the studio recording but his vision and sense of musical architecture are as strong as ever. If you're unfamiliar with his style, you may sometimes wonder where he is going at certain points, but then the next passage will make sense of it all and you'll never want to hear it played any other way. He was a magician in the concert hall and the grandeur and spirituality of this performance are both thrilling and moving in equal measure. Like the studio set, it also comes across as deeply personal.

The recording was transferred from a BBC TV tape, rather than a radio tape, and that seems to have added an extra dimension to the sound. I'm hesitating to use the phrase 'surround sound' because that suggests something very specific. Maybe 'cinematic' describes it better. Whatever, the recording seems to have a limitless capacity to allow Mahler's greatest climaxes to expand to really awesome proportions without any loss of inner detail or any sense of distortion, constriction or artificial manipulation. Indeed, this is the closest realisation yet of how this symphony sounds (and feels!) in a concert hall. This is doubly surprising when you consider that it was recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, although its bass-heavy acoustic response does pay dividends by allowing the organ's floor-shuddering pedal notes to register brilliantly.

For a live performance, I've noticed barely a handful of tiny fluffs. Personally, I couldn't give a monkey's, and if you let this deter your purchase of this electrifying recording then it is only your loss. I know which of my recordings of the Eighth will get the most play from now on.

A live Resurrection last year; a live Eighth this year... How lucky we are!
Comment Comments (16) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 19, 2011 3:57 PM BST

Britten: War Requiem
Britten: War Requiem
Offered by KAOZI168 Classical_ ''Dispatch From London within 1 day ''
Price: £19.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How Britten's own recording should have sounded...?, 21 Nov. 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Britten: War Requiem (Audio CD)
This extraordinary performance took place in London's Royal Albert Hall in April, 1969, seven years after the Coventry world premiere and six years after Britten laid down his own famous recording for Decca, and I think it combines the best of both worlds.

Anyone familiar with Giulini's work with the Philharmonia will know what to expect here and won't be disappointed. Even allowing for the live occasion and the unfamiliarity of the score, the orchestra scarcely put a foot wrong and sound every bit as comfortable with the music as their LSO colleagues on the Decca set. Of course, a closer look at the credits on this disc reveals the involvement of Britten himself. As well as conducting the Melos Ensemble in the war poetry passages, I daresay he worked with Giulini in preparing the performance overall. Indeed, comparing the timings of this set with the Decca shows that they are almost identically paced throughout except for the Libera Me, which finds the composer himself a touch more expansive.

The Philharmonia Chorus of 1969 was still in the hands of the legendary chorus master, Wilhelm Pitz, and what a thrill it is to hear their voices ringing around the hall in the Dies Irae, Sanctus and Libera Me. The great eruption of 'Dies Irae' after the baritone's 'Be slowly lifted up...' is every bit as terrifying as it should be; such precision, such power! A word of praise here also for the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir whose pure and haunting tone is captured more successfully than most on record (Hickox's Chandos set springs to mind as the obvious exception). Placed high up in the RAH's gallery (is there a more appropriate hall in the UK for this work?), they sound suitably disconnected from the real world. Their ghostly return at the end of the Offertorium and their searing entry in the In Paradisum are especially memorable.

No complaints from me about the soloists either. Woytowicz is similar in tone and style to Vishnevskaya but without the Russian's paint-blistering volume and vibrato, and the treacherous leaps across the stave seem to hold no fears for her. Hers is probably the most satisfying account on record, infinitely preferable to Harper for Hickox or Soderstrom for Rattle (both singers being decidedly past their prime on those recordings), while Vishnevskaya remains something else altogether! Pears is still in fine voice and sounds, by turns, both more forceful and more mellifluous than he did for Decca. His way with these words is simply beyond comparison. Like Woytowicz, Wilbrink also reminded me of his illustrious predecessor, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In fact, his first solo ('Bugles sang...') made me forget for a moment that I wasn't listening to Britten's own recording. His slight accent is not inappropriate and he shows a great deal of empathy with the words, even if he does fluff one of them in his first duet with Pears.

Other reviewers have mentioned the sound quality and it is true to say that this disc certainly is not a tour de force of sound engineering. There is a variable degree of what sounds like tape hiss and a couple of split-second drop-outs in the left channel during the Requiem Aeternam. The balance gives the impression of being seated in the centre of the hall's upper tier, looking diagonally down towards the orchestra and soloists, just about level with the higher ranks of the main chorus and a little below the boys' choir. There are audible coughs and on-stage rustles and shuffles (applause is omitted, by the way) but nothing over and above what a regular concert-goer will be used to. If you listen with headphones you'll pick up much more of this than you would through speakers. On the other hand, this recording gives a much better aural image of the scale of this work than Britten's own Decca recording. The Decca set is incomparable in every way except the sound which I have always found too close and lacking in depth and bass impact (it also suffers from tape hiss). By 'panning back' this BBC disc gives me a better sense of the performance space and the three separate 'planes' (the soldiers, the Mass, the boys), and allows the full, tragic grandeur of Britten's music to register with immense impact. The RAH's acoustic really comes into its own, giving a pleasing resonance and reverberation and the recording allows the most heavily-scored passages to expand without a hint of distortion. There is also a surprisingly satisfying bass response with timpani, bass drum and organ pedals all coming through very well. Overall, I think the pros add immeasurably to the impact of this performance to the point where you will soon overlook the cons.

In conclusion, I think this is a highly recommendable recording which no lover of this extraordinary masterpiece should be without. More than with any other recording, and despite its sonic imperfections, I was struck time and again by the thought that this is what the premiere must have sounded like in Coventry Cathedral nearly fifty years ago. The only real disappointment must be that this work's incredibly simple message still goes largely unheeded.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8; Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Mahler: Symphony No. 8; Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Price: £44.16

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Don't believe the hype, 22 Sept. 2010
Tilson Thomas' disappointing SACD Mahler cycle ends with an appropriately disappointing Eighth Symphony.

The opening bars offer much promise; a rich, resplendent organ chord followed by a crisp but powerful `Veni, creator spiritus' from the choir. It continues well enough for much of Part I, albeit with a nagging doubt that the choir is going to be too small for the really big coup de theatre moments. The solo line-up is nicely balanced, both within themselves and in relation to the wider sound picture and there is some hypnotically beautiful orchestral playing.

However, when we get to `Accende lumen sensibus' things start to unravel. First of all, Tilson Thomas makes the mother of all pauses between the `A...' and the `...ccende' for no good reason at all and this is indicative of some curiously hesitant moments to come in Part II. If it was conceived as a trick to increase the tension here then it backfires. The choir remains strong in unison although as soon as they split into eight parts they lack the numbers within their parts to maintain the volume, and the mixed children's chorus is too sweet-toned and pure to really punch through the layers of sound; a boys' chorus is always more effective here. There is also a total absence of organ sound which is strange considering the impact it makes in the opening bar. Either the instrument was reined in to avoid it swamping the choir or it is hidden somewhere in one of the SACD channels which would be a curious production decision considering relatively few people have adopted the technology. The closing `Gloria' lacks the euphoric thrill of the best recordings, despite a fast tempo, although the sound handles the choral and orchestral expansion well.

The first twenty minutes or so of Part II make for difficult listening. The long orchestral prelude can seem like an anti-climactic hiatus in the wrong hands, and Tilson Thomas is most definitely `the wrong hands'! His tempo is too slow and flaccid and his orchestra too light of tone to really project the craggy landscape of this music and set the scene for what follows. Listen to Tennstedt or Rattle on EMI or Bernstein on Sony and you'll quickly realise what Tilson Thomas lacks. The Anchorites' Chorus makes matters worse by attempting to phrase their words rather than employing a stark, harsh, monosyllabic delivery; this team just cannot resist blunting Mahler's sharp edges.

The solo line-up comes in for much closer scrutiny here also and a clear divide emerges between the ladies and the men. I have seen Quinn Kelsey's Pater Ecstaticus described elsewhere as `the best on record'; he is certainly not that (he's no match for Abbado's Bryn Terfel, to name just one) but he is very good and the pick of the men, I think. James Morris's Pater Profundus is a massive disappointment. His timbre is too dry and baritonal to sound `profound' and his uncomfortably wide vibrato tends towards the ragged. His final, strained lines sound especially uncomfortable, I have to say. Anthony Dean Griffey's Doctor Marianus is satisfactory (but nothing more) if you can live with his unusual vowels and the often pronounced beat in his voice. On the other hand, all of the ladies are amongst the best assembled on record and they combine beautifully.

It is Tilson Thomas' fussy conducting that really ruins the second part, however; too many unnecessary ritardandos, pauses and slow tempos. There is a pause of a good four or five seconds after the tenor's first solo that had me glancing at my CD player to check the disc was still running. He then takes an incredibly slow tempo for the harps' first entry, continuing into the `Dir, der Unberuhrbaren' chorus; the words almost unintelligible at this speed. He picks up the pace a little more by Mater Gloriosa's entry, if only to give the excellent Laura Claycomb a fighting chance of getting through it without breathing apparatus. By the time we get to the final chorus, it is quite clear that Tilson Thomas doesn't really have an overarching view of this work or a basic tempo running through it, against which he could have applied his rubato more successfully; he is just too short-sighted and episodic. This same structural weakness torpedoed his recording of the Second Symphony and the same happens here. He doesn't seem to know whether to go for a brisker, leaner apotheosis, like Rattle, or a grander, broader, more romantic one, like Abbado or Tennstedt. In the end, he falls between two stools and the symphony remains earthbound.

I have yet to find a recording of this symphony which doesn't require a degree of compromise on the listener's part, but this new one just goes too far and it is not one I wish to return to in any great hurry. My top five recordings of this work therefore remain unchallenged: Tennstedt (coupled with a pleasant recording of the Fourth Symphony on EMI Mahler - Symphonies Nos 4 and 8 ); Bertini (as part of an exceptionally consistent, well-recorded and bargain-priced box set on EMI Mahler - Complete Symphonies ); Abbado (rather pricey though, on DG Mahler: Symphony No.8 ); Rattle (with a great cast but slightly dry sound on EMI Mahler: Symphony No. 8 ); and Bernstein (the classic 1966 recording coupled with Janet Baker's Kindertotenlieder on Sony Mahler: Symphony No.8/Kindertotenlieder ).

At the conclusion of this San Francisco cycle, I am left wondering why they bothered to undertake this project at all. This orchestra, at least in Tilson Thomas' hands, shows little affinity with Mahler's idiom and the conductor seems afraid to unleash the full expressive power of the music. However hard Tilson Thomas tries, he is no Bernstein, and if this is the best of him then it is just not good enough to compete. Too much of this series has been woefully bland and underplayed, and defaced by some occasionally awful conducting. The first complete SACD Mahler cycle could have been something special but this one is almost entirely forgettable. I would encourage anybody who is more interested in musical fidelity than sonic fidelity to avoid it.

Mahler - Symphony No. 5
Mahler - Symphony No. 5
Price: £20.82

6 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nothing to see here, 22 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Mahler - Symphony No. 5 (Audio CD)
This is the penultimate instalment of Tilson Thomas' SACD Mahler cycle with his San Francisco orchestra. On the whole it has been a frustrating and tedious experience to listen to and this account of the Fifth Symphony does little to make amends.

As usual, the orchestra plays incredibly well and is very responsive to the conductor's baton but, after listening to this recording, I have never been more convinced that this partnership simply cannot speak Mahler's language. They could not make a vulgar, uncouth or savage sound if they tried (which they don't); there are no rough edges anywhere, no personality or character, and very little emotional involvement. The string tone is thin and, despite a pleasant horn tone, the brass section lacks weight and projection. The overall sound is just too light and shallow and cannot compare to the Philharmonics of London, Vienna and Berlin for Tennstedt, Bernstein and Abbado respectively, or Barbirolli's Philharmonia. No amount of fancy sonic engineering can change that.

Worse still, however, is Tilson Thomas' conducting. I am not averse to an `interventionist' approach in Mahler if it is handled with integrity, subtlety and serves the music. Tilson Thomas, on the other hand, comes across as gauche, clumsy and self-serving. He constantly cajoles, hassles, pokes and stretches the music and you are never allowed to forget his presence. The Scherzo really suffers here to the point where it just about undermines the whole performance. It is a movement of almost continuous development but must also bridge the gap between the stormy first two movements and the more lyrically straightforward final two movements. In Tilson Thomas' hands it seems disjointed and directionless, long outstaying its welcome and making the following Adagietto sound incongruous. There is some beautiful playing in the Adagietto, despite the conductor's heavy hands and my reservations about the SFSO strings, and a nice spring in the step of the Finale although it never really takes off and ultimately fails to satisfy.

This must be the most widely recorded of Mahler's symphonies so this release faces some stiff competition, not least from my favourites: Tennstedt ( Mahler: Symphony No 5 ), Bernstein ( Mahler: Symphony No.5 ), Abbado ( Mahler: Symphony No.5 ) and Barbirolli ( Mahler - Symphony No 5 ). Tilson Thomas just isn't in the same league and, personally, I wouldn't give him space on my shelf.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 7, 2011 6:02 PM GMT

Mahler - Symphony No. 7
Mahler - Symphony No. 7
Price: £16.82

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tilson Thomas' SACD Mahler series limps towards its conclusion with yet another dud, 17 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Mahler - Symphony No. 7 (Audio CD)
With a handful of exceptions (a very strong Sixth, parts of the Fourth and the outer movements of the Ninth), this series has generally been a stinker. Presenting it all in state-of-the-art SACD sound is tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig.

This airing of the tricky Seventh Symphony is no exception and suffers from the same weaknesses I have highlighted in just about every other instalment of this series; thin and characterless strings, misjudged tempo, sometimes laughable rubato, lack of involvement, a limited range of orchestral expression.

There is `something of the night' to the first four movements of this work and a conductor has to be able to articulate that if he is to stand any chance of success in the finale. Tilson Thomas just does not have enough colours in his palette to project this music effectively; he does pretty, smooth and elegant just about all of the time and only offers variation through tempo. The charm and moonlit illusions of the Nachtmusik movements elude him completely, and he is scarcely more successful with the eerie `bumps in the night' of the Scherzo. His orchestra never sounds dark or deep enough, literally or metaphorically.

Only in the Finale do things pep up and it is, to be fair, one of the better accounts out there, albeit lacking in the élan and exuberance of Abbado, Bernstein, Levine and Tennstedt. However, this simply serves to emphasise the fault line that runs throughout this performance. Tilson Thomas seems to think that the challenges of the Finale lie in the Finale per se, not in relating its different mood and style to the four preceding movements. It is arguably the most straightforward movement Mahler ever wrote and should not be difficult to pull off, but it has to make sense of what precedes it. Making the whole symphony sound `of a piece' is the real challenge but this account sounds more like five pieces for orchestra and that is why it fails.

He is not helped by sound which seems boxy and constricted and lacks resonance at times. The frequency response of the lower strings seems particularly deficient, with cellos and double-basses making little impact.

Abbado ( Mahler: Symphony No.7 ), Bernstein ( Mahler - Symphony No 7, also available in other sets here Mahler - Vol. 2 and here Mahler: The Symphonies ) and Tennstedt ( Mahler - Symphony No 7; Mozart - Symphony No 41 ) remain the holy trinity in this symphony, along with Levine's rare Chicago set ( Symphony 7 ). Stick to them.

Mahler - Symphony No. 9
Mahler - Symphony No. 9
Price: £23.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The best of the rest...perhaps, 16 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Mahler - Symphony No. 9 (Audio CD)
This SACD Mahler series from San Francisco has been a huge disappointment so far but I am pleased to say that this recording of the Ninth Symphony is actually pretty good. I had expected it to be ruined by glacial tempos and heavy-handed rubato but, despite it being one of the slower accounts on disc, it doesn't feel excessively long.

The first movement comes off very well with the San Francisco orchestra sounding more expressive and characterful than in any of the previous instalments in this series, bar the opening Sixth. The strings, in particular, sound far more edgy and alert after sleepwalking their way through most of the other symphonies. There are still a few lapses; the passage after the horns' entry around seven minutes in, when the sparse orchestral fragments are gradually knitted together, lacks variation and momentum, and a slow tempo towards the end almost dissolves the music into a pulseless blur but, on the whole, this is a competent and well-played account.

The two inner movements present a few more problems, derived mainly from some questionable tempo choices and the conductor's transitions between them. Tilson Thomas really does trip over his own rubato at times, with a particularly ham-fisted and gear-crunching segue into the first Trio of the second movement causing an awkward hiatus, and his Rondo-Burleske third movement lacks an obvious underlying tempo, with the music's ever-increasing bitterness and savagery instead undermined by the constant application of ritardando and accelerando.

However, the fourth movement is on much stronger ground and, I think, the most convincing movement in this entire series so far. Finally, I was aware of a true sense of melodic line and a feeling that Tilson Thomas was, for once, involved in the music with his musicians, rather than standing outside pulling the strings. No cares for the press reviews, record sales or posterity this time; for thirty-odd minutes just him, his orchestra and the score. It's beautifully played and conducted with a genuinely powerful central climax and utterly mesmerising closing bars. For its duration, I was aware only of the music and that's a refreshing change in this series.

So, do we have a winner? Well, the SACD sound engineering is certainly a plus point but, ultimately, I still feel this recording falls short of the very best. Despite a valiant attempt, Mahler's language just doesn't come naturally to these musicians and they cannot compete expressively with the great European orchestras who are very well represented on disc in this symphony. The string section, in particular, has a thin tone and that's a problem in such a string-dominated work. I also want a greater range and variety of tonal colour throughout the orchestra and I want it sustained throughout the entire piece. The San Francisco team have certainly upped their game with this release but the competition operates on such a high plain that I can only rate this recording as one of the best of the second division. If the rest of this series had been more successful then maybe I would feel more generous towards this recording; 3 Ĺ stars would be a fair assessment, I think.

Top recommendations are particularly difficult with this endlessly fascinating symphony as it can work equally well with vastly different approaches. I may even come to rate this new set more highly in the future. For now, I would rate Haitink as the best of the straight-down-the-line Ninths, with his Concertgebouw Orchestra playing as if to the manner born (which they practically were!) and a generous coupling in Das Lied von der Erde ( Mahler: Symphony No.9/Das Lied von der Erde ). However, I also enjoy the cool, Zen-like meditations of Abbado and Rattle (both with the Berlin Philharmonic, Mahler: Symphony No.9 and Mahler: Symphony No. 9 respectively) or the more extrovert, emotionally-charged approach epitomised by Bernstein ( Mahler: Symphony No.9, and the particularly extreme Symphony No.9 ). One recording alone of this work will not suffice and, whilst I am not yet convinced that I would add Tilson Thomas to my collection, I can understand why others would.

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor "Resurrection"
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor "Resurrection"
Price: £23.73

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars MTT's torpid Mahler cycle sleep-walks on, 15 Sept. 2010
This release of the Second Symphony represents the half-way point in this SACD Mahler series from Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco orchestra and, I have to say, there has been little of merit so far. Their good showing in No. 6 is now a dim and distant memory after woeful excursions through Nos. 1 and 3, and a No. 4 undermined by a desperately flaccid third movement. So I approached this recording of one of my all-time favourite pieces of music with little enthusiasm.

Slow tempos have become a hallmark of this series to the point where I now believe that it is the only tool of expression Tilson Thomas has in his locker. The first three movements are terribly slow and devoid of any character, contrast, impact or emotion, completely missing the whole point of Mahler's narrative set-up for the reaffirmation of faith in the final two movements. The playing is immaculate but the sound is so bland, and the conductor so reluctant to unleash the full power of his orchestra, that it all just becomes a smooth sheen of sound. Towards the end of the third movement, Dorothy Parker's withering description of Katherine Hepburn sprung to my mind: `she runs the gamut of emotions from A to B'. So does this performance.

The fourth movement is a vast improvement, but only because it involves a third party who is both willing and able to be musically expressive and emotionally involved. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is not the best mezzo on record in this role (I prefer Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Anna Larsson or Jard van Nes, to name just four off the top of my head) but she's a breath of fresh air after the hour of musical suffocation we have so far endured. Obviously, Tilson Thomas chooses a slow tempo but at least he maintains a steady pulse here and Hunt Lieberson is capable of sustaining it without losing vocal integrity.

The fifth movement is the biggest surprise. I had expected yet another embarrassing attempt by Tilson Thomas to emulate his hero, Leonard Bernstein, by expanding the music out to gargantuan proportions. Even though he lacks the talent to sustain such an approach, it would have been more in keeping with the rest of the performance than the stop-start, episodic approach he takes instead. Barenboim often talks of the necessity for a basic framework when performing a piece of music; so long as that structure, that anchor, is there, you can get away with a great deal of musical liberty and poetic licence. Without it, liberty becomes anarchy. The greatest and most expressive conductors understand this and one only has to hear Tennstedt's highly individual but thoroughly riveting live Resurrection on the LPO's own label for a perfect demonstration of it in action. Tilson Thomas has no structure, no framework, no basic tempo running through the whole piece and no overarching sense of its epic architecture and he fails to generate any accumulation of tension. He makes a few half-hearted attempts but his orchestra lack the heft and he lacks the desire to really let go. The two percussion crescendos are a good example; Tilson Thomas takes them both very slowly but the sound reaches a double-forte plateau about half-way through each and stays there. Compare this to Bernstein or Tennstedt who ensure that their far more powerful orchestras keep on expanding to triple-forte right to the end: power with control. So too with those pregnant pauses: with Tilson Thomas they are just numb voids; with Tennstedt the expectation and tension positively drips from the speakers.

The choral entry injects a bit of much needed colour into the proceedings again and the sound engineering captures the different vocal parts very well. However, they sound a bit distant and underpowered and, like the orchestra ranged beneath them, never really let rip. The soprano solo is Isabel Bayrakdarian who lacks the gravitas or vocal majesty to glide out of the choral sound effectively at the start and she sounds lightweight in comparison with Hunt Lieberson in their duet. Auger and Baker for Rattle, or Kenny and van Nes for Tennstedt are incomparable here. The final chorus is flat-footed and totally devoid of the `aufschwung' (uplift) Mahler calls for, with little organ presence and the conductor's constant jabbing at the brakes and accelerator completely getting in the way of the music. By the time he gets here, he doesn't seem to have a clue whether he wants to go for the swift euphoria of Abbado, the steely drama of Rattle or the transcendent grandeur of Bernstein and Tennstedt. He who hesitates is lost.

It is rare for a performance of this work to really fall flat. Even an average rendition can usually manage to hit a few fours and sixes before the end. I can recommend two very different live digital recordings which manage to rack up a century very quickly. For a brisk, taut approach I would recommend Abbado's Lucerne Festival recording on DG ( Debussy La Mer, Mahler Symphony No. 2 ) which generates a momentum all of its own and manages a truly ecstatic uplift at the end, helped by one of the best choral contributions on record. For tragic, solemn grandeur Tennstedt's live LPO set is unbeatable and is an invaluable record of one of the truly great Mahler performances ( Mahler: Symphony No 2, 'Resurrection' ). Both conductors are naturally instinctive Mahlerians and musicians of utmost integrity. To hear either recording is to be convinced that this symphony should sound no other way. Tilson Thomas is dwarfed by them.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Offered by KAOZI168 Classical_ ''Dispatch From London within 1 day ''
Price: £13.20

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars So near yet so far, 14 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (Audio CD)
The lighter tone and textures of the Fourth Symphony suit the SFSO and Tilson Thomas very well in this, the fourth instalment of their SACD Mahler cycle. It represents a definite improvement over their anaesthetised performances of the First and Third symphonies but still falls some way short of their Sixth.

My only real quibble with the first movement relates to the opening bars. The poco ritardando is generally taken as not applying to the sleigh bells, which should continue, a tempo, and fade into the start of the first theme. Rattle gets it absolutely spot on, I think, but Tilson Thomas runs it all at the same speed. It doesn't ruin the performance and it is a small and pedantic detail but, coming off the back of the lousy and uninvolved recordings of the First and Third, I'm again led to question the credentials of this partnership in Mahler when compared to the most insightful interpreters. But let's move on; the rest of this movement is quite exquisitely played and Tilson Thomas' choice of rubato is unlikely to cause offence. The slightly thin-sounding SFSO strings can't quite project a convincing Viennese sound and, again, Rattle's Birmingham players demonstrate that you don't have to be the VPO to do that, as does Bernstein's Concertgebouw. Nevertheless, this is a genuinely satisfying opening movement.

The second follows in broadly the same vain, only lacking in the last few ounces of character that the most successful accounts find. The playing is polished, as always, but that seems to downplay the inherent spookiness of this movement and the `death's fiddle' violin solo is just a bit too lyrical to be sinister. Tilson Thomas picks out the detail very well though, aided by the superbly vivid and spacious recording.

Unfortunately, my opinion of this recording takes a steep downturn during the excessive length (over 25 minutes) of the third movement. It is just too slow and Tilson Thomas seems to lack the ability to maintain both his orchestra's and his listeners' interest at this speed. There is more darkness in this movement than he cares to convey and there should be a gradual and subtle build up of tension throughout, leading to the release at the joyous explosion of sound a few minutes before the end. Despite a liberal use of portamento, the strings lack the depth of expression and the range of darker, autumnal colours that are on show in the best recordings. Ultimately, this movement just isn't lyrical enough and practically comes to a standstill in places. Very disappointing.

That disappointment is heightened by the success of the fourth movement, which I would class as one of the best I have heard. Tilson Thomas is towards the slower end of the scale but, for once, doesn't feel slow, unlike Maazel, for example. He has a near-ideal soprano in Laura Claycomb, whose fresh lyricism and purity of tone never tip over into cloying tweeness and she thankfully makes no attempt to sound like a choirboy.

Were it not for the ploddingly slow third movement, I think this would be a very strong contender in its own right, even before considering the superior SACD sound. As it is, however, it has to compete in a pretty crowded field. Maazel is very highly regarded, although I find him a touch too slow and Kathleen Battle's fourth movement is too cloying for me ( Mahler - Symphony No 4 ). Rattle is my current favourite; beautifully played, conducted and recorded, but Amanda Roocroft's solo will doubtless be an acquired taste ( Mahler: Symphony No.4 ). I have yet to hear the SACD competition of Gergiev, Zinman, Fischer and Haitink, but I would be surprised if none of the latter three came up with something more attractive than Tilson Thomas.

A marked improvement for this series then, but it still falls frustratingly short.
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