San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas, Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Vivien Schweitzer

By Vivien Schweitzer

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Mahler's colossal Sixth Symphony, composed in 1905 and later nicknamed "Tragic," seemed to be an uncanny foreshadowing of both Mahler's personal tragedy and the unimaginable horrors to come in the 20th century. Given that unsettling prescience, it's an eerily apt piece to begin recording on September 12, 2001, the day after one of the new century's first atrocities. Let us hope, though, that it's not a glimmer of yet another century of brutality.

An uncanny foreshadowing of personal tragedy

One of the remarkable things about this recording is that, especially given the circumstances, the performance doesn't slip into wallowing sentimentality. Instead, it's consumed by a quiet simmering grief, not howling anguish — as if Tilson-Thomas and the orchestra decided to conquer chaos with gravity, not hysteria.

It is not for nothing that this recording won the 2003 Grammy Award for best orchestral performance: There's no weak link in this band. The strings are powerful and lush, the woodwinds and brass are exemplary and it seems like a genuine group effort, with Tilson-Thomas eliciting dazzlingly clear textures and impeccable, nuanced phrasing throughout. The ominous march of the striking, magisterial first movement seems particularly eerie. There's plenty of drama, with sweeping climaxes punctuated by cymbal clashes, but again, the playing speaks of mournfulness rather than despair. The poignant lyricism of this movement, Mahler's reference to his wife, Alma, is all the more lovely in contrast.

Then comes the dark, sinister scherzo with its militaristic drums and creepy carnival funhouse atmosphere. The ensuing andante is poignant, beginning with solitary resignation until a cathartic heart-wrenching outpouring of grief seems to rend the very air. Tilson-Thomas unleashes passionate turbulence in the overwhelming, bleak final movement. Given the calamitous circumstances, the fateful hammer blows during the symphony's final, solitary whisper, are grimly spine-chilling.