Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (SACD review)

Also, Kindertotenlieder. Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Women of the SFS Chorus; Pacific Boychoir; San Francisco Girls Chorus. Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony. SFS Media 821936-0045-2 (2-disc set).

One could argue that all of Mahler's symphonies are Nature symphonies, some dealing directly with man's relationship to Nature, some with man's relationship to God and heaven, some relating to man's relationship to spirituality and fate. Yet none of his ten or eleven symphonies more immediately addresses the Nature theme than his Third. How do we know? Well, Mahler told us.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) began his Symphony No. 3 in D minor in 1895, completing it in 1896 and premiering it in 1902. During this time he changed it quite a lot, even eliminating one of the movements and using it later to close out his Fourth Symphony. Composers do that a lot, reusing bits and pieces, even recycling whole movements. Just ask Bach and the boys.

Mahler built his Third Symphony, his longest, in two parts and six movements. Along the course of composition, he named each movement: Part I: "Pan Awakes. Summer Comes Marching In (Bacchic procession)"; Part II: "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me," "What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me," "What Humanity Tells Me," "What the Angels Tell Me," and "What Love Tells Me." By the time he premiered it, though, he eliminated the titles, saying that "No music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it." Fair enough; it just hasn't stopped most people from assigning various "meanings" to everything the man wrote.

On the present recording, we find Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony and associated forces in what is to my reckoning his second recording of the work, the other one I'm aware of being a performance he made with the LSO for Sony about a decade earlier. There is no doubt Tilson Thomas has become one of our leading Mahlerians; however, I'm not as sure his interpretation of the Third Symphony has improved over the years. It sure is pretty, though.

The conductor's work in the first movement fairly encapsulates his approach throughout the symphony. The movement is the longest of the six, and Tilson Thomas's interpretation is among the longest on record. The movement itself is typical of Mahler in that it ranges from highly serene, lyrical passages to highly theatrical, dramatic sections. Tilson Thomas is best in the serene, lyrical segments, where his performance excels. It's just that when the music should get more energetic, the conductor seems reluctant to change his modus operandi. He and his orchestra continue to offer a beautiful, graceful, refined interpretation, with only a moderate speeding up of tempos during the more-rambunctious parts. Be that as it may, what he does do is modulate his dynamics more than most anyone else, with the softest passages almost too soft to be heard and the loudest ones knocking you out of your chair. Moreover, he takes some of the longest pauses between musical segments imaginable, some of the pauses lasting several seconds, long enough that you begin to wonder if he hasn't finished the movement early and left the podium. So, yes, while he does create a degree of tension with the contrasts and breaks, they are not quite enough to make up for the lack of intensity involved in the more-vigorous sections.

And so it goes. In the second movement, a minuet, and the third movement, Tilson Thomas fares better, bringing out the music's delicate luster, the more-obvious Nature motifs seeming to suit him. Then, in the four and fifth movements Mahler introduces first a solo voice and then a chorus of voices, and here again the conductor makes the music gently sparkle.

Mahler chose the unusual course of ending his symphony with a long, slow Adagio, and it's where Tilson Thomas actually seems a tad static, his pace a bit too leisurely, his closing lacking much punch. The "rich, noble tone" Mahler requested comes through only partially for my taste.

The disc I used as a primary comparison was one recorded by Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony for Unicorn in 1970. The main difference I noted was Horenstein's more concentrated dedication to creating a straightforward, poignant, yet exciting and ultimately compelling performance. His completing the entire work some ten minutes ahead of Tilson Thomas helps the cause, too.

In short, if beauty, grace, and refinement are paramount on your list of qualifications for a good Mahler Third, then Tilson Thomas's account may be just what you're looking for. It's not entirely out of place, after all, given the symphony's focus on Nature. Otherwise, you might also consider not only Horenstein but Bernstein (Sony), Rattle (EMI), Abbado (DG), and others.

Where the Tilson Thomas album really shines, though, is in the accompanying work, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder ("Children's Songs about Death"), a series of five songs Mahler wrote between 1901 and 1904 based on poems by Friedrich Rückert. Notwithstanding the rather morbid content of the texts, the songs can be quite moving, especially as mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung presents them.

Tilson Thomas made this recording of the Third Symphony live with the San Francisco Symphony in 2002, presented on SACD in a hybrid stereo/multichannel format playable on both regular CD and special SACD players. While I believe the SF Symphony originally released the recording for another company, they are now issuing it on their own label.

Despite its live origins, which I usually don't care for much, I have no hesitation in saying this is the best-sounding recording of the Mahler Third I've heard. Its closest competitor sonically is the aforementioned Horenstein Unicorn recording, which is marginally cleaner than the SFS Media product but not as smooth, as dynamic, or as spacious. We never hear a peep from the audience during the SFS performance, either: no coughs, no wheezes, no shuffling of feet, and no applause.

What we do get in the two-channel mode to which I listened is a broad stereo spread; an ultrawide dynamic range; a strong, taut impact; a good degree of orchestral depth; and a pleasant sense of concert-hall ambience. I have no doubt that the multichannel layer, with its additional audio tracks for rear speakers, would add even more live musical bloom to the proceedings.

Nevertheless, what I didn't like much was the packaging. It's a two-disc set, so when I first opened the SACD case, I tried to flip over what I thought was an inner plastic sleeve to check on the second disc. I couldn't do it. It took me a few seconds to realize there was no inner sleeve. Instead, the case stacks the two discs one atop the other, not the best arrangement for keeping discs free of scratches. One lives with it.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa