The playing is quite astounding...the recording is a beauty...
John Armstrong 2002
If you think the ne plus ultra of symphonic fatalism is Tchaikovskys Fourth, then you haven't spent enough time around this monumental statement from Mahler, never mind scratched below the surface for the subtext.
According to Alma Mahler, the Sixth Symphony is autobiographical, but written in advance of events; musical second sight if you will. Her husband was as happy as at any time, yet here he was writing the darkest, most devastating music: this symphony, and his Kindertotenlieder - songs on the death of children. The Symphony's Scherzo has inside it what Alma called 'the arrhythmical play of little children'...but by the time we get to the coda, the childish voices become more and more tragic, finally to die out in a whimper. Mahler himself wrote that in the Finale 'the hero...is assaulted by three hammer-blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled' - so when in 1907 the Mahler's eldest daughter died of diphtheria, Mahler lost his post at the Vienna Opera, and his life-threatening heart condition was diagnosed, you can understand Alma's emotional accusation that her husband had been tempting fate with his Sixth Symphony.
Mahler's view was that in common with other artists, he sometimes had the power to look into the future through his creations, but that he was powerless to influence events. And given his reaction to the dress rehearsal for the first performance of the Sixth - uncontrollable sobbing backstage - he seems to have been terrified by his musical vision, so much so that one of the three hammer-blows was struck out, so as not to tempt the very fate he was describing in his music.
So how do you climb this emotional mountain? There's a tightrope to walk between honesty and hysteria, emotional blackness and emotional blackmail...between Boulez and Bernstein, if you want me to come right out and say it. You won't budge Lenny's army of fans: for them only his Mahler fully explores the emotional extremes...but others come away exhausted, feeling beaten into submission. As a Bernstein disciple, it's fascinating to find Tilson Thomas tending more towards emotional moderation...which is not to say you're given an easy time, not at all. There's a ferocious energy and electricity to the San Francisco Symphony's performance that's harnessed to the natural flow of Tilson Thomas's interpretation; no extremes of tempo and rubato, no emotional hype - just an impression of inevitability as this massive orchestral machine goes about its business...and isn't that exactly what this symphony needs? This Mahler 6 talks to you where others scream for attention, and it's more powerful for its moderation. When the climaxes come in the terrible, crushing Finale, they're especially agonising for not having been pre-empted.
The playing is quite astounding; while you wouldn't mistake this for the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics, the San Francisco Symphony strings have warmth with tremendous agility, the wind solos are superb, and the impact of the brass is tremendous. The recording is a beauty, clear as the cowbells in the last movement, and you should note that this is a two-layer disc, so it'll replay as a standard two-channel cd, or as a multi-channel SACD. If you're an early-adopter, I have it on good authority that this is one of the most impressive surround-sound super-audio offerings so far (although I can't prove it yet for myself; I dont get paid for these reviews! But if anyone wants to offer me the use of a suitable player and surround system, I'd be happy to find it a home...).
So, a really promising start to Tilson Thomas's Mahler cycle from San Francisco, on the Orchestra's own label (distributed outside America by AVIE).
There's just one point to add, something I didn't want to allude to earlier as it might have coloured my comments. This recording is from live performances, the first of which was on September the 12th 2001...and we can only imagine the impact this violent, tragic symphony had on its American audience, the players and conductor within hours of watching the Twin Towers collapse. The booklet talks of the performance helping all involved gather their thoughts and emotions as they attempted to come to grips with chaos. The last movement's two fateful hammer-blows have probably never seemed so awe-ful, so absolutely final.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3