Posted on Sat, Jun. 19, 2004

A symphony triumph


IN THE SYMPHONIC repertoire, few works are as sublime, or as transcendent, as Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony made a thrilling case for this youthful and deeply profound work in Thursday afternoon's performance at Davies Symphony Hall.

The concert, which was recorded as part of the orchestra's ongoing Mahler project, is the final program of the 2003-04 subscription season. Performances repeat through June 26.

What a magnificent conclusion it makes. With its ambitious span from grim funeral march to a vision of heavenly redemption, this is music that sends audiences out of the hall feeling that they've experienced something truly momentous.

Tilson Thomas and the orchestra have scored numerous triumphs with Mahler's music in recent seasons -- as anyone who has heard the already-released live recordings of the composer's First, Third, Fourth and Sixth Symphonies can attest -- but the conductor and his orchestra seemed to reach a new level of interpretive insight and cohesion at Thursday's performance.

The Symphony No. 2, which was last performed here during the S.F. Symphony's 1998 Mahler festival, is something of a patchwork. Often called the "Resurrection" Symphony (for the hymn of the same name in the final movement), it was assembled in parts by the composer, beginning with the first movement, written in 1888 as a symphonic poem, "Todtenfeier" (Funeral Rites). The second and third movements came a few years later; the finale was written in 1894. Later the same year, Mahler returned to the work and inserted the song "Urlicht" (Primal Light) as the symphony's fourth movement.

Taken together, the five movements make a stunning progression from darkness to light. The challenge for a conductor is to tie them together and create a sense of unity from one movement to the next. Tilson Thomas accomplished this brilliantly.

The details were all in place, beginning with the mordant writing for low strings that introduces the funeral music of the massive first movement. The music that followed -- assertive marches interrupted by episodes of magical lyricism -- sounded fierce, turbulent, expansive and thoroughly committed.

After the overwhelming sonorities of the first movement, the delicacy of the Andante moderato comes as sweet relief. Tilson Thomas lent an almost unbearable sense of lightness to the dance music that opens the movement, although there was an underlying tension there to draw the listener on.

The third movement, borrowed from the composer's "Knaben Wunderhorn" collection, was characterized by vibrant color and exuberant pulse.

The soloists were both first-rate. Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, one of the music world's finest vocalists in just about any repertoire, was an ideal choice for "Urlicht." Singing with gleaming tone, immeasurable pathos and articulate phrasing of the text -- which offers the symphony's first glimpse of eternal bliss -- the Bay Area native sounded simply divine.

The orchestral outburst that followed led to a lovely brass chorale and nothing less than a summons to the Day of Judgment. The off-stage horns were given eloquent voice.

As the soloist for the second vocal part, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian offered a performance of perfect poise and crystalline tone (not to mention the promise of "immortal life.")

Best of all were the men and women of Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus, whose contributions -- marked by phenomenal weight and pinpoint clarity -- lent the performance an ethereal glow.

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