Arts & Events

Mahler’s Brilliant 5th at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 30, 2018 - 05:43:00 PM

To my mind, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, composed in 1902, is without doubt the greatest symphony of the twentieth century, rivaled only by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. I might even claim that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest symphony since Beethoven, rivaled only by the Brahms Fourth. Rankings aside, however, no one, I believe, can hear Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in a live performance by a top-level orchestra and come away unmoved and unimpressed. Surely everyone who heard one of the four performances this week of Mahler’s Fifth by San Francisco Symphony came away with a sense of awe and appreciation for this giant of a symphony. (Due in part to its 75-minute length, but also because of its bold ambitions and enormous wealth of detail, Mahler’s Fifth is often nicknamed the “Giant.”)  

San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, has made a specialty of Mahler’s music. Thomas has recorded all ten of Mahler’s symphonies and most of this composer’s song cycles. Where Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is concerned, I have heard grumbles that MTT takes the second iteration of the funeral march in the first movement too slowly. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, it seems to me useless to cavil this way about an interpretation that is as thoroughly integrated as this one. MTT knows Mahler inside and out; and he knows how to make us appreciate each and every detail of Mahler’s music. Thomas also gets the best from his orchestra, as evidenced in this week’s superb performances by principal trumpeter Mark Inouye, principal horn player Robert Ward, and harpist Douglas Rioth, among others. 

Mark Inouye’s trumpet opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with a solo summons, introducing a slow funeral march in violins and cellos. With measured cadence, this cortege marches slowly, yet all the while Mahler varies colors and textures in such a way that the grief of a funeral march is transformed into something almost light and beautiful rather than dark and oppressive. This is only the first of many musical miracles in this symphony.  

Mahler structured his Fifth Symphony in five movements, but he also divided it into three sections, with movements one and two as the first section, the extended scherzo of movement three as the second section, and the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale as the third section. Following the funeral march of the first movement comes a stormy second movement, marked “with utmost vehemence.” Now and then, however, recollections of the funeral march reappear, occasionally transformed into an almost jaunty and light-hearted procession. Indeed, with its shifting harmonies, irregular rhythms, and tortured, leaping figures derived from the march, this movement is riddled with instability. Yet it is also brimming with intensity. At the close of this second movement at the Saturday, March 23 performance I attended, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.  

Next comes the Scherzo. Unlike so many other Mahler scherzos, this one, though featuring wild country dance rhythms, carries little or no hint of the sarcasm and irony that usually underlie Mahler’s scherzos. Included in this movement is an important obbligato part for the first horn, brilliantly performed here by Robert Ward. Following the Scherzo is the famous Adagietto, scored for strings and harp only, and marked sehr langsam/very slowly. This is music of rare languor and beauty. Perhaps, as many scholars believe, it is a love song from Mahler to his wife, Alma. This Adagietto also has similarities with the first of Mahler’s Ruckert songs, 

which contains the words “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen/I am lost to the world,” and which ends with the words, “I live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song.”  

A call to attention by the first horn now introduces the Rondo-Finale. Here the contrapuntal style may owe a debt to Mahler’s recent intensive study of J.S. Bach. Yet for all the backward glance there is also a look forward into the music of the future. Snippets of the chorale from the second movement reappear and are transformed, as is the melody from the Adagietto, which is now given up-tempo treatment. This symphony, which opened with the somber trumpet call and funeral march, now goes out in a blaze of confidence and glory, full of affirmation. Its closing notes were greeted by a standing ovation from the Davies Hall audience. 

Opening the program at this series of concerts was Alban Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra of 1935. Featured soloist was violinist Gil Shaham. Berg wrote this work on a commission from violinist Louis Krasner. But the true inspiration was the death from polio of eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler Gropius. Berg had adored young Manon and inscribed the score of his violin concerto “To the memory of an angel.”  

The work opens with notes from the harp followed by the violin soloist. Using the twelve tone mode of composition, Berg emphasized those pitches that correspond to the open strings of the violin. Gil Shaham gave an energetic performance, often playing notes at the very top of his instrument’s register. An occasional lack of overall balance sometimes led to the orchestra rendering the solo violin almost inaudible. This fault must be attributed to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. There occurred one section I found quite lovely in this difficult, often strident, work, and that came when the string section played pizzicato accompaniment to a quiet, almost lyrical, solo by Gil Shaham. All told, the Berg Violin Concerto may not be the most ingratiating piece, but Gil Shaham gave it a very respectable interpretation, as did the San Francisco Symphony, which recorded these performances for a future release on the house label.