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MTT’s Mahler 2

Discussion in 'Music & Music Streaming Services' started by Todd_A, Aug 20, 2005.

  1. Todd_A


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    Just a short time ago I became familiar with Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent recording of Mahler’s Fourth. My initial reaction was favorable if qualified. Another half-dozen hearings later, I can say that many of those qualifications have given way to outright acceptance and admiration. My initial equivocation was merely a matter of inappropriate expectations: so fond am I of Klemperer and Abravanel in this work that I wanted something similar to one of those two recordings. MTT has something else to offer, and his more laid-back but still meticulous presentation has grown on me quite a lot. Time to try something new, I surmised. The Second.

    The second is not my favorite Mahler symphony, its length, scale, and overall structure lacks the coherent compactness of the First and Fourth, its melodramatic tone lacks the emotional power of the Sixth and Ninth. But I like it nonetheless. Once again, Klemperer looms large in this piece, offering an unwavering, powerful account. At the other end of the interpretive spectrum is Leonard Bernstein, with an intensity second to none married to a far more flexible approach to the score. These have been my favorite readings. How does Mr Thomas compare? Quite well, but ultimately he does not quite match up to either.

    To start with, Thomas is closer to the Bernstein end of the spectrum, interpretively speaking; he takes greater liberties in tempi and phrasing, but he pursues notably different ends when compared to his older countryman. This is apparent early on; even the opening string passage has his notable imprint. He allows himself to play ever so subtly with the dynamics and tempi, and when other instruments join in, it is with slight changes and different emphases than in other recordings. Now, when necessary, the orchestra still erupts with monumental power, as in the first tutti, and the resulting wall of sound is eminently satisfying and physical. But listen only a matter of minutes more and one can hear what one will either find an annoying mannerism or an intriguing interpretive device: Thomas will slow things down, and lead the most delicate pianissimo playing, literally merely above a whisper, employing a highly personal rubato to remarkable effect. This touch – or more precisely, set of touches – pervades the work.

    After the towering opening, one gets much more of it in the next two movements. Throughout these delightful little movements there is a sense of, well, lazy swagger is the best I can describe it: MTT and his band are so thoroughly in tune, and so well drilled, that they seem to exert little effort in dispatching every minute nuance the maestro wants. Some gentle pizzicato? No problem. True ppp (or is it pppp?) playing? A breeze. Unabashedly, achingly beautiful playing. Sure thing. At times the pieces come perilously close to losing the musical line, just as in the Fourth, but as in the later work, that line is never quite breached. I can easily see some people getting annoyed by it. Not me.

    Now to the fourth movement. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is absolutely awesome. I’m not too familiar with her singing, but late last year I watched and heard her deliver some truly stunning singing – easily the best in the performance – in a 1996 production of Handel’s Theodora. She does the same here. So moving is her singing, so beautiful her tone, that one wishes Mahler had written more for the mezzo. MTT and his band support her with equally impressive and beautiful playing.

    The gigantic finale – split into two tracks, not the one listed – is glorious. Isabel Bayrakdarian makes a fine soprano, but far more importantly, the chorus performs at the highest level. Absolutely everything is perfectly delivered, with the right combination of clarity, heft, and emotive power. One thing is absent though: a pervasive sense of how massive this piece is. Indeed, throughout, one marvels at the lightness and almost chamber like qualities of much of the score. One forgets, given the vast scale of the work, how little all of the forces really belt out the music together. Don’t get me wrong, when ultimate power is needed, it’s there in abundance, but when it’s not needed, Thomas is brilliantly adept at providing only what’s needed. So one can hear more detail and appreciate the complexity of the whole work and finale. This finale lacks the overwhelming, cumulative power of Klemperer and the intensity of Bernstein, but it still satisfies, but in a different way.

    So, this is an outstanding performance, but I’d be lying if I said it matched up to the very best. It doesn’t. But keep in mind that I’m referring to only two other recordings. (The Bernstein I refer to is the DG recording.) The newcomer easily withstands comparison to any other version. But also keep in mind that this is an idiosyncratic reading, filled with innumerable little touches that may annoy as much as delight. Me, I love it.

    Now that MTT and his band are roughly halfway done with the Mahler cycle, one must ponder what comes next. On the evidence of the three Mahler recordings I’ve heard, I’d say that, in addition to the American music that MTT must surely record, perhaps he should undertake to unfurl the dense writing of Bruckner’s Fifth, or perhaps revel in the beauty of Brahms’ Second, or perhaps, dare I hope, record the most beautiful Szymanowski imaginable. One can ponder and dream.

    Oh, to the mundane stuff: sound is superb, with gobs o’ detail, clarity, and heft.

    A keeper.

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