MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A minor "Tragic." Piano Quartet movement in A minor.
Philadelphia Orch/Christoph Eschenbach, cond.
ONDINE SACD ODE 1084-5D (2 disks) TT: 52:21 & 44:17

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor.
San Francisco Symphony Orch/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.
SAN FRANCISCO SACD 821936-0012 TT: 71:21

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A minor "Tragic." HENZE: Sebastian Im Traum.
Royal Concertgebouw Orch/Mariss Jansons, cond.

Michael Tilson Thomas continues his San Francisco Mahler cycle with this splendid performance of Symphony No. 5 recorded during concerts September 28-October 2, 2005. It is among the most successful in this series, superbly played, with sonics that vividly capture the rich sounds of the SFO playing in Davies Symphony Hall. The Fifth is available on SACD in no less than six other versions (Abbado, Haenchen, Limori, Nott, Temirkanov and Zander) as well as DVDs with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, and Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic. There are more than 80 regular CD recordings as well, but overall the new Thomas is easily among the best, both interpretively and sonically. Luxuriously packaged, it is also pricey (almost $26 list). Symphony No. 6 has three SACD versions in addition to these new Eschenbach/Philadelphia and Mariss Jansons/Concertgebouw releases (Claudio Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic; Adam Fischer/Budapest Festival Orchestra; Benjamin Zander/Philharmonia Orch), plus Bernstein's Vienna DVD. Only the Jansons is competitive with the others. What a pleasure it is to hear the mighty Concertgebouw Orchestra playing so brilliantly and so solidly recorded. The second disk is filled out with the world premiere recording of Hans Werner Henze's Sebastian im Traum. This is a fairly recent 14-minute work and, as the composer states, "forms come and go, appear, are illuminated and and then they come into contact; their overlappings are painful, as befits the general atmosphere of the piece." I doubt that many collectors will feel this is a plus for this recording, but the two disks sell for the price of one very expensive SACD.

Compared with the sonic grandeur of the Jansons (and other versions), the new Eschenbach recording of Mahler's Sixth disappoints. The third release on Ondine by the Philadelphians, it was recorded in Verizon Hall in November 2005, a venue with problematic acoustics. The orchestra has a distinctive recording history. Victor began to record with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1917 mostly in the Academy of Music. In 1958 when Columbia began to record the Philadelphia Orchestra in stereo, the orchestra's famed "Philadelphia Sound" became well-known to collectors. Realizing the Academy of Music was too dry for successful stereo recording, CBS searched for other recording locations; some of their finest were made in Philadelphia's Town Hall or Broadwood Hotel., although sonic quality varied considerably depending on recording site and producers. Eugene Ormandy began recording the PO in 1968 for RCA with mixed results, again depending on producers and venues—their first batch of recordings were sonic disasters. This new Mahler Sixth has a pallid overall sound. Violins are thin, there is a distant perspective to the sound picture, little impact in percussion—even the famed hammer blows of the finale don't amount to much. Inclusion of Mahler's student piano quartet movement is welcome, and the two SACDs sell for the price of one.

R.E.B.(October 2006)