Echoes Of Mahler Ring In Berg Compilation By MTT and SF Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony. (Photo by Art Streiber)

Alban Berg: Violin Concerto, Seven Early Songs, Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. Gil Shaham, violin; Susanna Phillips, soprano; San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. SFS Media SFS 0080, SACD.

DIGITAL REVIEW – The Michael Tilson Thomas era at the San Francisco Symphony may be over, but the melody lingers on with recordings and videos forming a tangible legacy.

The biggest footprint that MTT left in that area was in Mahler, which got the orchestra’s SFS Media label rolling after its contract with RCA Victor expired. The result was a cycle of Mahler’s completed nine symphonies plus the Adagio of Symphony No. 10; an earlier Das Klagende Lied licensed from RCA; all but a few of the orchestral songs, a two-volume “Keeping Score” video documentary; and, as an encore, the “Blumine” movement that Mahler discarded from the Symphony No. 1. All of the audio recordings, save “Blumine,” were gathered into a 17-CD box and, as a final extravagant gesture, a massive slip-cased edition containing 22 LPs, a bonus EP and a hardback book weighing altogether about 21 pounds.

Quite a monumental way to launch a label, and if one could point to a possible followup, it would probably be this all-Berg SACD that finally came out during what should have been MTT’s successor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first season in command (MTT remains the SFS’s music director laureate).

Alban Berg’s music may be the closest thing to a direction that Mahler might have taken, had he lived past the year 1911 and chosen to cast his lot with Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Obviously, we don’t know the answer to that, though Mahler’s last work, the unfinished Symphony No. 10, repeatedly tugs and strains tonality to the breaking point before stepping back from the abyss. But Berg was inspired by the world premiere performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony to go where Mahler either would not tread or didn’t live long enough to do so.

Thus, the opening of Three Pieces For Orchestra, Op. 6, might sound almost like a desiccated distortion of the opening of Mahler’s Ninth if you indulge in a flight of imagination. The last and lengthiest of the three pieces, a march, redirects Mahler’s apocalyptic march idiom – think Sixth Symphony – into the white-hot cauldron of atonality, with passages closely related to some in Wozzeck, which Berg had started working on at the time (1913-15). The language of the late Romantic era is taken apart as Berg goes over the edge, yet without losing the texture and perfume of Romanticism. That is why Berg, of all the members of the Second Viennese School, is the easiest one for general audiences then and now to accept and even love.

Gil Shaham solos in Berg’s Violin Concerto, composed in 1935 ‘to the memory of an angel.’ (Photo by Chris Lee)

Tilson Thomas and his darkly polished San Franciscans are into the music’s angst all the way, a bit more expansively in pace than other renditions, which is all the more effective for sorting out the detail captured by the excellent engineering. The recording was made in 2015 and originally released as a download in 2017, but is making its first appearance on disc here, so those who do not yet have hi-res capability for streaming or downloads can get the full impact of its sonic crunches.

The other recordings here come from concerts in 2018 conveniently lifted from the vault to fill out the disc. Seven Early Songs dates from Berg’s studies with Schoenberg before he adopted atonality, and as such, they are settings of sentimental love poetry in a lush Romantic idiom, ideal for anyone who likes Richard Strauss lieder. Soprano Susanna Phillips sings delectably, and MTT and the orchestra caress the music lovingly.

The SFS sounds equally rich and ravishing in Berg’s last completed work, the Violin Concerto, dedicated “to the Memory of an Angel,” Manon Gropius, the late 18-year-old daughter of Mahler’s widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius (therein lies a long tale best told elsewhere). Again, Berg had to interrupt an opera (Lulu) in order to write the work, but this time his premature death in 1935 at 50 (same age as Mahler) would leave the opera unfinished.

Violinist Gil Shaham takes a path midway between the sweet throwback Romanticisms of Itzhak Perlman or Pinchas Zukerman and a more contemporary, harder-edged tone, though with enough of an edge, tougher than his previous recording with David Robertson and the Dresden Staatskapelle (Canary Classics). He and Tilson Thomas take tempos that are sometimes considerably slower than most interpreters, but that pay off exquisitely in the long, drawn-out peroration that ends on a thoroughly tonal sixth chord. I would play this disc in reverse order, as per this review, just to have this final utterance linger in memory.