Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Ives & Mahler

"Keeping Score"

Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony

SFS Media [HD & blu-ray]

These are two magnificent DVD documentaries with full performances included. The sound and picture quality are superb.

Michael Tilson Thomas, from 1988 to 1995 principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, gave a memorable Mahler series in London many years ago, one which remains a major memory of my concert-going life (when was it, I can't remember?).

These DVDs are from an admirable TV series of programmes. They are well researched and provided with telling illustrations of both composers' formative experiences in early life.

I had wondered whether the Mahler one was still necessary, so univerally popular have his symphonies become. But MTT's examination, especially of the roots of the 1st Symphony in Gustav Mahler's early life, is enthralling; the package includes also a fine account of the germinal Songs of a Wayfarerr with Thomas Hampson.

My only reservation is whether he tries to get in too much, necessarily rushing to get in points about about each of the other symphonies, and in the context of his personal life and demanding full time employment. As opera company director and conductor, composition was relegated to summer holidays, with lakeside "composing huts", that restriction making his achievement before early death all the more remarkable. There was a lot to learn even for Mahler enthusiasts.

But the Ives package, devoted to a single work, is perhaps even more valuable.

Charles Ives remains a controversial taste, and his symphonies still bewilder audiences with their juxtapositions and simultaneous musics which can create daunting modernistic experiences a century on.

He too was a part-time composer, a successful insurance man for his day job. The Holiday Symphony was ideal for MTT's purposes, and he takes us unhurriedly through the four movements with memorable historical photos and clips of marching bands etc to fill in for us the genesis of this hugely attractive symphony. There are numerous telling anecdotes which really contribute to the making of Holiday Symphony and our understanding and appreciation of it; still the case that "Ives is the composer featured in the series that most people know least well and the ‘Holidays’ symphony less well than Ives' numbered symphonies" [MusicWeb].

I find MTT's bubbling enthusiasm and his insights into the genesis of his chosen works irresistible, and they carry the great orchestra with him. It all looks and sounds magnificent on up to date big screen equipment (mine is Panasonic + Sony Home Cinema).

A suggestion for a future volume in Keeping Score; Havergal Brian's gigantic Gothic Symphony 1919-27, revived in The Proms after thirty years unplayed in concert. Brian was an Ives contemporary composer who stills baffles audiences and critics; he would be an ideal subject for the MTT Keeping Score treatment?

Peter Grahame Woolf

San Francisco Symphony at 100

Adams, J: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
Copland: Billy the Kid - Suite
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Itzhak Perlman/San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas

Avie SFS0057 | 2011 | 146 min Blu-ray £45.50

Peculiarly expensive, but a good celebratory concert sharply filmed for TV in excellent sound.

Billy the Kid was especially welcome, that once popular ballet seeming to have fallen out of favour. An impressive account of the Britten showed off each department of the orchestra.

Oerlman is getting on, bu he still gives a persuasive account of the Mendelssohn (not his only violin concerto, as announced in the hall!).