"Keeping Score: Mahler, Origins and Legacy" created and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Documentary and a complete performance of Symphony No. 1 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra recorded in September 2009
SFS Media (2 discs) TT: 243 minutes 16:9 widescreen with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound

This is the seventh in the video Keeping Score programs broadcast on PBS, a commendable series that began in 2006. This site has mentioned many of them: the Berlioz: Symphony Fantastique (REVIEW), Beethoven Eroica (REVIEW), Stravinsky Rite of Spring (REVIEW), Copland Appalachian Spring (REVIEW), Shostakovich Symphony 5 (REVIEW), and Ives Holiday Symphony (REVIEW). Some of these are on Blu-Ray as well as standard DVD, and a few of the performances have been issued on CD or SACD. For complete information, check listings on ARKIVMUSIC

One could say that these are unique extended “educational” programs. Michael Tilson Thomas and the producers have themselves learned from succeeding releases, each being a step up in presentation technique, visual splendor and content. All were filmed in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco except the Shostakovich which was recorded during a Proms concert in Royal Albert Hall in 2007. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's musically sharp and colorful playing displays a deeply committed orchestra which is beautifully recorded available on this release in surround sound, 5.1 or stereo on the DVD, and Dolby TruHD 5.1 or Dolby TruHD 7.1 surround or Dolby 2.0 stereo on the Blu Ray. The excellent dynamics, full-bodied sound and rich orchestral textures heard in all formats will delight audio buffs. This is one of the first symphonic Blu-Ray discs released in 7.1 surround sound and it is mightily impressive.

This Mahler Keeping Score issue is special in several aspects. It consists of two extensive, perfectly produced presentations with Thomas as narrator, a journey through four Mahler works, and a complete live performance of Symphony No. 1.

The first disc is the real reason this set is a “must have,” a truly inspired presentation of the composer's life, with Thomas visiting sites from his birthplace to the grave site with lots of stops in between. MTT takes everything Bernstein taught him about “presenting” and brings it into the 21st century. A deeply felt presentation, it is expanded with extensive location actualities which explain Mahler's origins, rational and irrational feelings, fears, his identification with nature, fascination with the ironic and the grotesque, then finally the grand, and ultimately his tragic last years and death. We visit the square in Iglau , now Jihlava in the Czech Republic, hearing the “Sonic Goulash” that enveloped Mahler as a child, experiencing the military bands, the church, tavern and synagogue sounds as well as the sounds of nature that influenced his works. We are in the fields and forests, in Vienna at the court opera, we visit the composition huts, and for the first time ever, go into his magnificent lakeside home near Maiernigg, Austria. We visit New York and Carnegie Hall, and finally return home to his grave site. This superb documentary is meticulously presented by Michael Tilson Thomas and the production crew. Joan Saffa and David Kennard were producers and directors of the Keeping Score series. Do note the “making-of” extras on this disc – they are well worth watching.

The second disc contains “A Mahler Journey” and a live concert performance of the first symphony. The Titan symphony is a youthful work despite its groundbreaking achievements, and MTT understands when to be serious about it and when to let it rip. Energy is generally high within the limits of score markings. I would prefer the first movement a tad slower, but by the end, we are up and running. I have real problems with the start of the 3rd movement in this and many other performances as the double bass solo is a bit too pretty and mannered. It was intended to have sarcastic bite, as exemplified in the Mitropoulos performance (Sony 62342). A little more swagger in the second theme (like in the Bernstein recordings) would have been welcome. But we finish in powerful style with superb brass and percussion, vividly captured by the engineers. We see an involving visual presentation of the orchestra using at least 14 cameras verses the 4 to 8 used in most videos, many providing moving rather than static shots. And all are artfully edited by a first rate audio and video team under the direction of Gary Halvorson. There are several other videos of Mahler One on DVD or Blu-ray (DVD-Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic, DGG), (Blu-Ray-Abbado/Lucerne Orchestra, Euroarts). And there are a many superlative performances on CD including those by Bruno Walter, Bernard Haitink, Jascha Horenstein, and Rafael Kubelik, to mention just a few.

In A Mahler Journey, conductor Michael Tilson Thoma's narration guides us through the composer's life with four musical references, beginning with his youthful and pivotal song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer with the incomparable baritone Thomas Hampson. Strangely there are no subtitles for this one section, and no clear presence of the soloist in the center channel. Themes from this work are present in almost all of Mahler's music with the song, Ging heut morgen ubers Feld, “This Morning I walked across the field,” heard almost thematically intact in the first movement of the first symphony. Hampson is “state of the art” in Mahler song, tasteful, moving, perfectly on pitch and totally in character. Then we hear complete movements from three symphonies: the Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, certainly the best known work in the composer's repertoire; the bizarre Scherzo from Symphony No. 7, and the quirky Rondo Burlesque from the Symphony No. 9. Each of these examples is introduced by MTT talking directly to the audience in Davies Symphony Hall and to you as he explains Mahler's journey through a life of giddy heights and deep desperation.

The website for Keeping Score is a tour de force. Visit it and see all the above plus dozens of sidebars and breakouts. As Newsday said, “Playing music well is difficult, yet the world has an abundance of fine performers. Explaining a little about music is easier, yet few do it well. Those who can do both supremely form a tiny club, whose honorary chairman is the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.”

The cost of this release must be mentioned. The Blu-Ray version is almost $60.00, the DVD is almost $45, a hefty price indeed. You might consider it as a contribution to the very worthy Keeping Score project, or the San Francisco Symphony. But you can't write it off your taxes!

L.R.M. (June 2011)