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Thomas heads for a record with a radiant Mahler's 2nd

- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, June 19, 2004

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The recording of Mahler's Second Symphony that ultimately emerges from the final concerts of the San Francisco Symphony season promises to be a brilliant addition to the orchestra's Mahler cycle. But it won't conjure up the awesome physical power of the live performance under Michael Tilson Thomas.

Not even with really good speakers.

Thursday's matinee performance in Davies Symphony Hall unleashed a potent phantasmagoria of sound, by turns tempestuous and serene, urgent and sumptuously detailed. The orchestra has rarely sounded better, the Symphony Chorus brought translucence and fervor to the final movement and the solo contributions by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian were superb.

What was most striking about the performance, though, was the almost palpable physical presence of the music -- a sense that the audience was situated at the center of a drama unfolding all around it.

From the dark, implacable power of the opening funeral march to the blazing radiance of the choral finale that brought the symphony to a close some 90 minutes later, Thomas seemed intent on making the entire experience as vividly explosive as possible.

The result was a performance that whetted the appetite for the recording to come while simultaneously mocking the very idea of capturing such a multidimensional reading on disc. To get the full measure of the thing, you're going to have to be there.

Fortunately, the program is being repeated for two weeks' worth of performances. And there should be time before the tape starts rolling next week to iron out the minor glitches that afflicted Thursday's performance, including some exposed brass bobbles and the occasional miscue in the third movement.

But the main outlines for a reading of enormous vitality and impact are already firmly in place. Thomas launched the symphony in a tautly controlled torrent of sound, and arranged the first movement as a series of extended orations strung between full- orchestra detonations of sound -- rarely have the formal joints in this lengthy movement been articulated so robustly.

Much of the movement's potency came from the brass, which sounded unusually resonant and strong. The same sense of coiled power resurfaced in the third-movement scherzo, which Thomas took at a formidable clip.

In between, for contrast, was the gaily dancing second movement -- the least profound and most enchantingly beautiful stretch of writing in this symphony (perhaps in any Mahler symphony) -- which found the string sections playing with unprecedented suavity. I can't remember the last time they mustered such a plush, debonair sound.

And then, finally, Hunt Lieberson came on the scene, with an assignment that was short in duration but unforgettable in its emotional impact. In her luminous, still-centered rendition, the setting of "Urlicht" emerged as an almost unbearably urgent testament of anguish and faith, its phrases soaring with increasing pliancy in conjunction with the soulful violin counterpoint of concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.

She and Bayrakdarian made their contributions to the finale as well, but the glory there belonged to the chorus, which sang with shimmering clarity under leader Vance George. The symphony's concluding pages -- with chorus, orchestra and soloists joining forces to pour forth Mahler's quirkily pantheist hymn to resurrection -- were enough to raise the roof.

Good luck getting that onto a recording.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 tonight and at 8 p.m. Wednesday through next Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $35-$97. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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