San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas, Mahler: Symphony No. 5

James Jolly

By James Jolly

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
“The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

In a famous encounter, Sibelius and Mahler discussed the symphony as a genre. "The symphony," Mahler said, "must be like the world. It must embrace everything." His Fifth Symphony, written at the turn of a new century, does seem to aspire to that all-inclusive vision. It starts, like Beethoven's Fifth, with a challenge to Fate, seething with life and all its contradictions and traumas. And like so much of Mahler's music, references to popular culture — dance forms, for example — are bound up in the more exalted and spiritual elements of the score. Just like life, really! The fourth movement, the Adagietto is another of those heavenly string-drenched movements that make time stand still. Heard in context, it's like an emotional oasis before the wonderful surge of life as the work races to its close with an affirmation of Mahler's own creative vitality. Michael Tilson Thomas gives a terrific performance with some quite astounding playing from his San Francisco orchestra.