Mahler: Symphony No. 7
Perhaps the most peculiar of Mahler's symphonies -- yet also the most distinctly Mahlerian, for that very reason -- the Seventh Symphony is a wild ride for the orchestra and the audience alike. From the marches of the opening movement through nocturnal serenades and a spectral Scherzo to a delirious comic Finale, Mahler pushes musical coherence almost to the breaking point. But each new idea is so beguiling and cloaked in such inventively poetic sonorities that it's easy for a listener to be swept along in the symphony's current. It's a bit trickier for the musicians themselves -- not to mention the conductor, who needs to find a balance between sincerity, irony, gravity, and vulgarity -- but Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony can communicate the ambiguous charm of the Seventh more effectively than any other American orchestra today. Tilson Thomas revels in all the music's extremes -- not just the frenzy of the accelerating Finale but also the delicacy of the fourth movement's "night music," for example, tinted gently by mandolin and guitar. Details like these are well placed, both musically and sonically, whether it's a distant cowbell or a pungent chord blasted by the bassoons, and there's also a sense of realistic concert-hall perspective that results from the live concert recording. This Seventh is a superb addition to the orchestra's self-released Mahler series, which, as it nears completion, looks to be a classic cycle for the 21st century.