MTT Mahler 5

The Fifth Symphony in Michael Tilson-Thomas’s survey of the canon with the San Francisco Symphony is the culmination for me because I find myself so distant from the Eighth symphony which is the only one yet to be released that its immaterial.

It's been a long journey and MTT has visibly aged in the cover photos but then his boyish good looks couldn’t last forever. Its been a long journey and a hugely satisfying one. The highlights for me have been many and not just musical. The releases on SACD have been spectacularly recorded and the playing of the SFS has been astonishingly good - well into the top flight. The symphonies have not been so consistently played and directed for a long time - at a much lower voltage one could look at Maazel and Ozawa as the next best. MTT for my money stands up there with Kubelik as a beacon of good sense in Mahler conducting. Not as bold as Sinopoli or as wilful as Boulez, MTT like Abbado in recent years has brought the music out of Mahler.

So the Fifth is a special place. It’s a very fine reading which grows on me day by day, full of the kind of attention to detail that makes each visit a learning process. It doesn’t leave me breathless at the end but it does in parts of those magnificent structures in the middle movements. MTT has a knack of under-playing the endings of these symphonies which leaves me wanting a little more but his appreciation of the key inner moments is perhaps matched only by Sinopoli in my experience.

It’s a gesture-filled symphony and part of me doesn’t like that much. Vänskä who recently gave the symphony on a European tour with the Minnesota Orch, breaks the symphony down to its core rhetorical devices them builds them back up into a modern piece of music - disparate and desperately trying to break out of a classical mould. MTT gives us something akin to a story- tellers view of the pages. The final moments not so much a dénouement as a grand calculated flourish and regretful glance backward at a tale well told.

This may be too sophisticated for some, but you have to do something a little bit clever with this symphony because given its overview, one could say that Mahler didn’t. Minor to Major, Funeral march to joyous Rondo, sad song near the end, concerto for orchestra and horn in the middle - it’s not on a par with the symphonies that followed IMHO.

The main glory of this recording the playing - the woodwind behave like a flock of birds each individual deciding to follow or lead as required. At volume - and I should stress this - it hard to hear how it could be bettered. No European orchestra could match the brass playing which is distinct sophisticated and virtuosic. The strings are warm and full and in the violas there’s something of the bloom one gets around the low strings of the Concertgebouw or occasionally the Berlin Philharmonic.

What’s lacking? The sardonic bite that Bernstein got in Vienna - but that’s not for everyday. The clever temporal tricks Karajan conjures from the third movement. There’s trumpet playing (presumably John Wallace) of the highest order in Sinopoli’s analytical reading. And as I have mentioned Vänskä’s deconstruction/reconstruction which shows the symphony teetering on the edge of a neoclassical world. And finally there’s Abbado revelling in every note - as sincere a man as one would want as a guide through this familiar terrain. But a reading can’t be all things and if you want a strong story line beautifully delivered - MTT is your man.


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