By Lawrence Budmen

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler charted a course of musical originality that prefigured many of the major artistic trends of the 20th century. Mahler greatly expanded the formal structure of the symphony - combining sonata form with the opulent orchestral extravagance of a tone poem. His early symphonies speak of hope and optimism while the later works have a pessimistic tone, suggesting the composer's obsession with death. In these late symphonies, Mahler freely experiments with tone rows (long before Arnold Schoenberg brought forth his theories of atonal music).

Two conductors with close ties to Miami's music scene direct new CDs of Mahler's visionary masterpieces. Their music making is of the highest order.

Michael Tilson Thomas, founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony, conducts the San Francisco Symphony (his other ensemble) in a magnificent performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 6 in A Minor" ("The Tragic"), which sets a new standard for this complex and troubling score. Here Mahler is at his most wildly original. Harsh dissonance, tonal ambiguity, shrieking winds, and bombastic percussion effects are combined with lush string textures and lyrical romantic themes in this 88 minute emotional journey. Musical romanticism is stretched to its very limits.

Some conductors attempt to impose classical restraint and order on Mahler's frenzied creative imagination. Others go with the musical flow and let every ultra-dramatic gesture make its full effect. No conductor did this type of Mahler performance better than Leonard Bernstein. Tilson Thomas actually surpasses Bernstein's achievement in this performance. His tempos are taut. Everywhere the musical passion is intense. The conductor extracts the full measure of emotional fervor from the composer's most soul baring work.

Tilson Thomas is supported by superlative orchestral playing. The strings are always rhythmically precise and tonally rich and full. The wonderful subtlety of the wind playing is striking. The brass and percussion have a shattering impact. The close, vivid recording was made at live performances at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall on September 12-15, 2001. Could the horrific events of September 11 have contributed to the emotional impact of this performance? Tilson Thomas's accomplishment is remarkable and bodes well for the forthcoming complete Mahler cycle on the San Francisco orchestra's own label and for the conductor's performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" with the New World Symphony this season.

Mahler's stirring and beautiful "Symphony No. 2 in C Minor" (Resurrection") rarely fails to bring out the best in its performers. A truly great interpretation, however, can make the music sound new and original. That is exactly what Israeli-born conductor Yoel Levi does on his new Telarc recording. Levi played an important role in the formation of the Florida Philharmonic, of which he was artistic advisor and principal conductor for two seasons. He later returned as guest conductor on several occasions.

Levi conducts an extraordinary performance. The first movement Allegro maestoso is slower than most performances, yet all the more effective in its dramatic impact. The contrasting lyricism of the second theme is wonderfully cathartic. The second movement Andante moderato is graceful and precise. The scherzo has appropriate devilish abandon but also dance-like charm in the Viennese landler. The "Urlicht" becomes a full bodied operatic aria, as sung by the opulent voiced mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips. Ms. Phillips's tonal richness and dramatic projection make the movement truly poignant. The final movement is a transcendent experience in Levi's inspired performance, aided by full throated choral singing and the angelic purity of soprano Barbara Bonney's voice. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (of which Levi is music director emeritus) plays with the warmth of a first rate European ensemble. The strings and brass are wonderfully mellow and the woodwinds sweet toned and lyrical. The climaxes are stunning in this recording made in Atlanta's resonant Symphony Hall. Yoel Levi is clearly a great Mahler conductor.

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