By Lawrence Budmen

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a true musical revolutionary. A conductor and proponent of the classical tradition, Mahler's compositions broke new ground in their expansive form and harmonic complexity. His symphonies are emotional journeys that bring the musical vocabulary to the brink of abandoning tonality. These scores require a conductor of extraordinary gifts. The rich, chromatic orchestral texture demands unusual clarity. These tempest tossed scores (at times stormy, at others serene or bucolic) cry out for an interpreter who understands the music's grand line while illuminating the passionate, fiery outbursts of a one of a kind genius.

These scores have always held special pride of place for Michael Tilson Thomas. Like his mentor Leonard Bernstein (who was largely responsible for the Mahler revival of the 1960's and 1970's) Tilson Thomas offers transcendent performances of these mammoth works that bring the agony and the ecstasy of Mahler's creative genius vividly alive. On April 28 the New World Symphony will celebrate Tilson Thomas's 60th birthday with a performance of Mahler's First Symphony featuring a combined orchestra of present NWS members and alumni of the Miami based training ensemble that now play in distinguished symphonic ensembles around the globe. 

Tilson Thomas has been Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony for the past decade. That orchestra has established its own record label (www.Sfsymphony.org) which has been recording the complete Mahler symphonies under Tilson Thomas's baton. This has been a distinguished series and the two latest releases do not disappoint. Moreover the new recordings feature vocal soloists who have recently concretized in Miami or will be heard here next season. 

Mahler's "Symphony No.2 in C Minor" ("Resurrection") is one of the monuments of the orchestral literature. This music travels from the depths of despair to exultation in a celebration of universal human brotherhood. The final stirring choral pages are some of the most moving and thrilling in the symphonic repertoire. The San Francisco recording (made at live performances in June, 2004) has a vivid presence and clarity that take the listener inside the music's multiple layers. Tilson Thomas's super charged conducting and the superb orchestral playing leave no doubt that this is the first great Mahler cycle of the 21st century! Vance George's San Francisco Symphony Chorus has precision and full bodied ensemble singing in the tradition of the late Robert Shaw (perhaps the finest, most innovative choral conductor of the last century). Two particularly arresting vocal soloists command attention. The rich, multi hued mezzo-soprano of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the Urlicht (4th movement) is deeply moving. (Hunt Lieberson will be soloist next season with Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony in Mahler's "Ruckert Songs.") Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian's angelic purity of timbre and incisiveness of utterance are marvelous in the finale. (Bayrakdarian gave a terrific "sleeper" recital in Miami last season and will return for Sunday Afternoons of Music's 25th Anniversary concert on April 2, 2006.) Tilson Thomas brings searching eloquence to the symphony's final triumphant pages. A great recording!

By contrast Mahler's "Symphony No.4 in G Major" overflows with Vienesse charm and engaging instrumental delicacy. Tilson Thomas's 2003 performance of this score with the New World Symphony was a true artistic revelation and the new San Francisco recording (from performances in September, 2003) is nothing less. Rarely have the transitions in the elegantly playful first movement been handled with such grace. The spacious line of the Poco Adagio is heavenly. The gorgeous playing of the string section is close to divine. In the lieder of the fourth movement soprano Laura Claycomb's light, silvery sound and enchanting phrasing is a pure delight. (Claycomb gave radiant performances of a Handel cantata and arias by Rameau at a NWS Baroque concert earlier this season.) Mahler's once rarely played symphonies have now joined the standard repertoire. The new Tilson Thomas recordings set new artistic standards for these grandiose masterworks!

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