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Reviews: Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - San Francisco/Michael Tilson Thomas

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Reviews: 8

Site review by Polly Nomial January 21, 2009
Performance:   Sonics:  
The text for this review has been moved to the new site. You can read it here:

Review by tream March 9, 2004 (1 of 1 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I finally had a chance to listen to this straight through. This is a wonderful successor to the SFS/MTT/Mahler cycle, both in performance and sound. On the performance - this is not purely objective music-making. MTT is first of all intent on demonstrating each nuance written into the score by Mahler. Secondly, he has an interpretive point of view which goes well beyond mere demonstration of nuance, which includes slower and faster tempos than normal (since the 4th is primarily a lyrical, contemplative work, tempos are generally slow), insertion of slight pauses and ritards, etc. I find that he bends, but does not break the phrasing and for me the results are absolutely convincing, but others may not agree (I note Johnno's post in the forum, where he feels MTT pull the 1st around too much). In certain passages, he achieves a stasis that is otherworldly-don't know how else to describe it.
The orchestra plays their hearts out for MTT - they sound like 100 soloists absolutely committed to the same goal. MTT divides his violins-first on the left, seconds on the right, with cellos next to the firsts, violas next to the second. Interestingly, he follows this pattern for the recordings, but I've also now heard his 5th, 9th, and Das Lied recently, and when not recording, he seems to follow the more usual pattern used these days-firsts and seconds on the left, cellos on the right. Mahler, of course, had the violins divided, the common practice until the mid-fifties or so.
Alexander Barantschik, SFS concertmaster, (formerly concertmaster of the LSO), plays his solos well - I remember thinking in the live concerts how well he projects. On record, rising star Laura Claycomb, a late replacement for Christine Schaefer, is a surprise - in concert, at least where I sat when this recording was made, she seemed to have a small/light but beautiful voice; however, in the recording she is miked much more forward (e.g., rides over the orchestra more) and sounds like a young Schwarzkopf (e.g, more chest tone), although with few of the mannerisms. If your touchstone is Reri Grist or Kathleen Battle, she might be a little heavy, but she sings with great expression, and her German is excellent (or at least so by my Anglo ears).
Last, the recording itself. I listened in stereo mode - I have not yet installed my MC system in my new house, so this is the first of the SFS Mahlers I've not had the advantage of hearing in surround sound. I miss the impact of the hall that you get in MC sound. Having said that, it is an excellent recording in stereo. Nuclaeena might find it too close, and I would love to hear his view, but the sound allows MTT's interpretation to shine (all that nuance can be heard clearly), and Mahler did say that "music is polyphony" so we need to hear it all. Instruments sound like themselves, soundstaging is excellent, and there is also great depth. Dynamic range is excellent, and the disc shows one of the real advantages of DSD recording - it sounds good at high (realistic) sound levels. Turn it up, and you don't get digital distortion.

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Review by Dinko March 15, 2004 (1 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
A mostly good disc, but I have some reservations which have more to do with release schedules and comparative listening than with the actual quality of this album.

Michael Tilson Thomas' monkeying around with fast & slow movements does not bother me here. Some conductors take these contrasts to the extreme and they end up ruining the music. While I would have preferred a more stable approach, MTT nevertheless keeps the music mostly moving forward. Although truth be told, I've always found the third movement overstays its welcome, and MTT's 25+ minutes of it are not going to change my mind. The other three movements move along nicely however.

The sound is big & bold and represents orchestral timbres well. Strings are full and velvety; brass is crisp; details clearly audible; the listener close to the orchestra but not inside it.
As with previous entries in this SFS/MTT Mahler cycle, make sure the neighbours are away before playing this at high volumes, loudest parts are wall-shattering (good thing there aren't too many of these climaxes). Surrounds offer decent hall ambience; do not intrude unnecessarily.

Where I have a problem with this, is that it follows right on the heels of another new recording of the Mahler 4th. Coincidence had it that both were recorded last fall and issued this winter. Comparisons are inevitable when brand new recordings of the same music come so close to one another. The other version is one by Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra with soprano Karine Gauvin.
The MTT version was released in early March 2004. The YNS (Yannick Nezet-Seguin) version was released in early February 2004.

Both versions are on the slower side. YNS takes 60 minutes, MTT takes 62 minutes.
While the YNS version does not have the advantages of SA-CD, it sounds... better, albeit it has limited dynamic range. Careful engineering ensures a great amount of detail in a blended sonic picture. A sound stage that is wide and open... never stuck up, the listner somewhat farther away from the orchestra than in the MTT recording. Brass on YNS is not as loud as on MTT, but it has a more rounded, three dimensional sound. The violin solos in the second movement are beautiful on YNS, but too rustic on MTT.
The Montreal musicians outplay their more famous San Francisco counterparts not so much in better note-playing but in greater emotional involvement with the score and a more beautiful tone, both of which contribute to make the YNS version sound better, more involving. Karina Gauvin has a purer, more pleasant, more steady sound than Laura Claycomb. Gauvin sounds more at ease with this music.

Excellent as the MTT version is, it sounds like a conductor leading a groups of people playing instruments while the whole procedure is captured by microphones. In other words, it may be a live concert, but it sounds like a recording. It sounds human.
The YNS version seems even more planned, even more controlled. Ironically, of the two versions, the YNS is the studio recording. Yet... there is more life in it. Forgive the silly remark: but if the MTT sounds human, the YNS sounds angelic.

The MTT version exists on SACD, and a fine SACD it is. The YNS performance exists in another world. It is music making on a higher level. Had this MTT version come in another place and time, perhaps it might have been an excellent addition to a collection. As it stands though, it comes as second rate to the YNS version which beat it by a month.

( a link to the YNS recording: )

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Review by Monteverdi April 12, 2004 (3 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Graceful, deeply considered and paced, MTT/SFO continue to generate deep admiration and pleasure in their new recording where Mahler uses his creative powers to evoke a sweet innocence within a larger unsettled and conflicted internal world. And as in previous releases of this cycle, MTT and his orchestra present a Mahler radiant in his humanity rather than considered from a brilliant emotional distance as in the Boulez cycle on DG. Soprano Laura Claycomb is the fine soloist.

The SFO performance is assured, tonal qualities noticeably richer than in previous recordings. This may be as much the orchestra’s continuing development with the recording team better understanding the acoustic of Davies Hall.

And while the character of the sound is not what you would hear live in Davies, the recording presents a big, rich dynamically wide sound-picture of the orchestra. This disc is simply stunning in SACD surround.
©DAE 2004

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Review by lana April 15, 2004 (1 of 1 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I agree with Monteverdi. Mahler considered his 4th symphony his best; so do I, including performance and soundquality. Comparing with the first and third symphony from SFS/MTT the quality is increasing. I'm looking forward to the next one; I hope it will be the fifth.

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Review by thepilot December 27, 2004 (3 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I still remember and cherish the first Decca recordings of SFSO with Blomstedt (the Strauss tone poems) that enthralled music lovers with the splendid playing of the orchestra and the wonderful Decca recordings.
Yes, the SFSO has always been a splendid orchestra and Thomas was a great Mahlerian even in his early days with the LSO (Remember that wonderful Mahler 3rd with LSO and Janet Baker for CBS?) Here the SFSO play like angels and Tilson Thomas gives us the performance of a lifetime, that is one of the best Mahler 4ths on the market. The recording is equally ravishing, perfectly balanced and completely realistic. I also liked the lavish packaging and I think I will buy the whole series.
The Davies Symphony Hall glorious acoustics finally make a difference and the multichannel mix transports the listener in a good seat of this splendid hall.
The recording is live but you would not know this because the playing of the orchestra is astonishingly presice and crisp. Bravo MTT, SFSO nad multichannel DSD recordings.

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Review by Dr. O August 11, 2005 (6 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Another spectacular recording from MTT and the SFS!

The tempos are all deliciously convincing, and the clarity is of the highest caliber! Laura Claycomb's soprano voice is well tempered to the heavenly playfullness of the finale. MTT captures the almost Mozart-like directness of this translucent score, And the 3rd movement - Wow! - transcent in it's "other-world" beauty. This performance will leave you mesmerized!

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Review by threerandot March 13, 2008 (6 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
MIchael Tilson Thomas and The San Francisco Symphony give an unforgettable and what could be for many, a definitive performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

I don't believe I have ever heard a more moving and deeply penetrating performance of this Mahler Symphony before. Thomas is not simply content to read the score. I sense that he has spent a great deal of time probing the depths of this music to get to the "essense" of this symphony.

Deeply felt, committed and profound are words that can easily be used to describe Thomas's approach. Most profound of all, is the reading of the third movement. There is a spiritual and transcendental quality and Thomas is never afraid to punctuate the climaxes. He pushes the San Fransisco players and your system!

The San Francisco Symphony prove to be an extemely gifted group of musicians who know this music technically and spiritually. Listen for the woodwinds throughout this recording, exquisitely played. And those oboes in third movement are outstanding! Laura Claycomb is a moving soloist with a wonderfully lyric voice in the finale.

The recording team are to be commended as well. The recording has a big, wide dynamic range and the instrument placement is excellent. The audience is nowhere to be heard, so there are no coughs or gasps to disrupt your enjoyment of this rapturous reading.

After hearing this recording, I am going to collect all of the recordings of Thomas and the SFS in this cycle. I listen to all of my SA-CDs in Multichannel and this is an amazing experience! This is simply a disc not to be missed. Fantastic!

I would also like to mention the impressive packaging of this disc. It contains an outer cardboard box which holds a traditional compact disc Jewel Case, (no rounded corners) and an impressive and lavish inner booklet with notes on the music, as well the SFS and the text to the fourth movement of the Symphony. Strangely, there are no notes on the soloist, Laura Claycomb. An impressive package which adds to the overall presentation.

(This review refers to the Multichannel portion of this disc.)

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