Michael Tilson Thomas

Mahler: Symphony No. 5

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There are plenty of fine recordings of Gustav Mahler's popular Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor, but each decade seems to produce its own landmark renditions: Bernstein's in the 1960s, Solti's in the '70s, Sinopoli's in the '80s, and Abbado's in the '90s. For the first decade of the twenty first century, Michael Tilson Thomas' riveting 2005 version with the San Francisco Symphony may eventually be regarded as the classic performance, simply for its unsurpassed emotional commitment and luminous intensity. The technical mastery of both conductor and orchestra is beyond reproach, and the sound quality of this direct-stream digital SACD is almost beyond belief, so this recording meets all the basic requirements of the toughest Mahler fan. But what makes this performance truly great is the energy that is readily apparent in the live concert setting; the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson Thomas' leadership is as blazing in sonority and brilliant in execution as any of the world's best orchestras, and they play with just as much expressive fire and force. The Trauermarsch is explosive in its grief, and even though this gripping movement might be emotionally draining for a lesser ensemble, the orchestra moves straightway to the extreme violence of the second movement, then dances vigorously through the Scherzo, swoons with amorous languor in the Adagietto, and bursts with sunny radiance in the fugal Rondo-Finale, all without the slightest trace of fatigue. This is a finely detailed performance, with remarkable definition of the counterpoint and internal rhythmic figures; Tilson Thomas is scrupulous in observing the letter and spirit of Mahler's score, bringing out unique touches in the orchestration and graduating tempos with appropriate amounts of rubato. But above all is the players' concentrated involvement in the music, which is the deciding factor in placing this exceptional disc at the forefront of Mahler recordings of its time. Highly recommended.

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