MAHLER:  Symphony No. 1 in D   "Titan."
San Francisco Symphony Orch; Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor "Tragic."
San Francisco Symphony Orch; Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

These are the first two issues in the SFSO's planned Mahler cycle all to be recorded during live performances.  Symphony No. 6 was recorded Sept. 12 - 15, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, Symphony No. 1 during concerts the following week.  There must, indeed, have been an atmosphere of tragedy during these concerts, conveyed by this performance of the Sixth, surely one of the most impressive on CD, quite far removed from the violent hysteria of Solti/Chicago (London) and Neeme J”rvi's runthrough on Chandos which is so hasty (72:32) there's time for a 7-minute "Mahler" filler.  The latter is the only recording of Symphonisches Praeludium supposedly written by Mahler, orchestrated by Albrecht Gürsching; this would be the only reason to have this recording..

In this memorable performance Thomas luxuriates in the many lyric outbursts of the symphony - the "Alma" theme has never sounded more expressive, and the orchestra's superb strings soar appropriately.  In the finale MTT opts for two instead of three hammer blows ( heard at 17:41 and 28:01) which are impressive although not as cataclysmic as I expected considering that this is a digital recording.  The first is, indeed, quite shattering, but the second rather subdued.  However, in most recordings the hammer blows lack impact.  The most effective hammer blows I've ever heard aren't from a commercial recording, but a live performance of a Baltimore Symphony broadcast some years ago with David Zinman on the podium.  I was at one of the performances quite close to the orchestra and could see the specially-built heavy wooden box, about the size of a podium, which was struck with a huge sledge hammer producing an awesome sound that reverberated throughout the Meyerhoff concert hall for several seconds—vividly captured on the broadcast recording.  I've never heard anything like it in any commercial recording.

This twin-CD set is a stereo hybrid SACD which can be played on any standard CD player.  If you have an appropriate player, you can hear the 5 channel mix.  The sound is superb in regular stereo, but in multi-channel it is remarkable. There is a broad spread to the orchestra, strings are resin-filled, brass bold and brilliant with plenty of resonance to replicate the sound of a good concert hall. I cannot imagine how this was engineered during live concerts; there are no audience sounds of any kind.  This, from a sonic standpoint, is infinitely superior to the first in-concert recording of MTT/SFSO, an RCA disk of music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet with scrawny, blurred sound—recording that won the 1997 Grammy Award for "Best Orchestral Performance" and was, incredibly, lauded by some critics for its sonics as well.

The symphony requires two disks (total PT 87:30, compared with 76:56 for Solti, 72:32 for Järvi) but the two sell for slightly more than the price of one premium-priced CD.  The presentation is quite handsome with an outer slip-box and profuse program notes.

Symphony No. 1 is not as successful as No. 6.  There are many superb elements, tempi in the first two movements are effective and the funereal aspects of the third movement are well projected.  However, the touching passage for strings just after the brief but expressive three-bar oboe solo (cue 31 in the score, just before the transition to the "fast and stormy" recapitulation) is played entirely too fast—this is one of the great moments of Mahler—but not in this performance.  Symphony No. 1 also is a stereo hybrid SACD (see above); it also sounds wonderful in regular stereo.  However, when heard in multi-channel, Mahler's colorful country scenes are displayed with extraordinary beauty. There is no question that from a sonic standpoint the final majestic pages are a knockout—either in regular stereo or multi-channel, in spite of the fact that this is 5 channel, not 5.1 channel which means there is no separate channel for low frequency information.  It doesn't really seem to make much difference—there is plenty of low bass indeed.

Both of these are major additions to the Mahler CD catalog.

R.E.B. (September 2002)