Lucky San Francisco, with a population of 777,777 (give or take a few),
is the smallest city in the world with the best Mahler performances.
(In Europe, the nod goes to Monte Carlo, of 30,000 residents, although
the orchestra's musicians there commute from other countries.)
In the current all-Mahler recording series by Michael Tilson Thomas and
the San Francisco Symphony, there have been some unforgettable experiences,
such as the post-9/11 Sixth Symphony, a spookily brilliant Fifth, and a
glorious Ninth. Tonight, Davies Hall witnessed a grand Seventh Symphony
- with full recording facilities in place to capture the live performance.
Not as searingly "perfect" as the 2000 Simon Rattle-Berlin (pop. 4
million...:) performance, *the* modern landmark for this work, tonight's
MTT-SFS Seventh was a warmer, less hectic, and above all, coherent
presentation. Cohesion in this symphony - of many, often contrasting,
voices, moods and emotions - is hard to come by, and MTT delivered on
that difficult task, in all but the last movement (and that was not the
conductor's fault, but Mahler's, writing a Rondo-Finale that just doesn't
hang together, whatever you do with it).
After a few minutes of slow and cautious opening, the performance flowed
wonderfully through tempo changes, dynamic shifts, a wild variety of
emotional extremes. MTT's leadership was steady, inexorable. His timing
of the movements, at 20/15/10/13/17, made perfect sense, the crucial
first movement faster than in many well-known performances, but eminently
"right," the rest delivered in more or less "standard" time.
The orchestra was fabulous: the all-important brass held steady,
woodwinds sang freely, strings provided an oceanic sound of depth and
breadth. In solos, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik's smallish but
sweet voice blended perfectly with Geraldine Walther's viola. While the
first movement was just as "big" and overwhelming as one would hope, the
smaller inner movements were the glory of this performance. The thrill
of "Nachtmusik," the dancing syncopation of the Scherzo, and the songs
of appealing dissonance in "Nachtmusik II" all came through with Viennese
authenticity one is stunned to find in this little American town at the
far end of another continent.
[log in to unmask]