Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E flat; Adagio from Symphony No. 10

San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media 821964-0021-2)

23 October 2009 3 stars

Mahler 8As seems to have become customary, Michael Tilson Thomas brings his Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony to a close with the mighty 'Symphony of a Thousand'. A couple of song-cycles are still to come but this release represents the culmination of an extremely impressive project, and a considerably more consistent achievement than LSO Live's recent survey with Gergiev.

It's a shame that Tilson Thomas is among the dwindling number of conductors, however, who conduct just the 'Adagio' of the Tenth Symphony. Here once more the movement is called into service as a filler and a warm-up to the main event. It's treated to a perfectly respectable performance, with the characteristic objectivity of Tilson Thomas's approach serving late Mahler's extraordinary expressive palette well. Yet there's little feeling of passion bubbling beneath the cool exterior, with a lack of warmth in the orchestral timbre.

There is, though, a combination of outstanding playing and meticulous preparation which is also immediately apparent in the performance of the Eighth. This recording was taped live at performances just less than a year ago – in November 2008 – that were obviously impressive events, not least in technical terms. Tilson Thomas's control over his vast forces is impeccable and the playing of his orchestra, in particular, is beyond reproach. The complex textures of the first part of the symphony are especially well served by the cleanness of the performance and the clarity of the recorded sound, particularly in the extended contrapuntal build-up into 'Infunde amorem cordibus'.

The performance reminded me of Pierre Boulez's recording of the same work from a couple of years ago where an objective approach brought more convincing results in the First Part than in the second. The two texts Mahler chose link, as the late Michael Steinberg puts it in his accompanying essay, 'the complexities of Goethe's humanism to the questionless faith of an eighth-century Christian hymn [and] Mahler sought to create a similarly encompassing work.' Tilson Thomas and Boulez before him both, in my view, fail to strike the right balance in their intepretations between the cerebral and the emotion of the grand, operatic ceremony of Mahler's setting of the final pages of Faust II.

Nevertheless, it's difficult not to marvel at many of the details Tilson Thomas exposes, or the skill with which he is able daringly to draw out, for example, the hushed interlude before the chorus's 'Dir, der uberührbaren.' Similarly, I was impressed at the control of the opening chorus and the beautifully controlled lead-up to the chorale-like cadence at 2'36 in the orchestral introduction. Rarely, either, has the lead-in to Doctor Marianus's 'Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne' taken on such a feeling of hushed religiosity, even if tenor Anthony Dean Griffey struggles to provide the requisite vocal refinement.

Elsewhere, however, Tilson Thomas's tight grip on proceedings leads to a lack of spontaneity and passion. His tempi are flexible but the transitions often sound calculated rather than organic, while the five minutes or so before the Chorus Mysticus's 'Alles Vergängliche' fails to build up the head of steam one expects. There's much to enjoy in the final chorus – including some excellent basses at its start – but it reinforces the impression of a performance that one admires rather than finds oneself swept away by. The soloists are generally fine, with Quinn Kelsey's impassioned and appealing Pater Ecstaticus particularly worthy of praise.

By Hugo Shirley