During a Tanglewood’s Fromm Week exactly 50 years ago, when this writer was a fellowship composer, student conductor Michael Tilson Thomas directed the premiere of something of mine. I remember him from that time with respect and affection. Now he is 73 years old and a senior maestro of worldwide renown, about to celebrate and conclude his 25 years with the San Francisco Symphony. I had last heard him in a concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and am well aware of several of his recordings, including the pathbreaking two-CD set of the Complete Works of Carl Ruggles. Michael’s still-effusive septuagenarian conducting style remains assured and fully precise in all dimensions. Some of his gestures obviously come from Bernstein (perhaps he is thinking of the centenary tribute to Lennie that is spread all over Tanglewood this year), including the double-handed thrust with shoulder shrug and upward gaze, but even that sideways whiplashing beat showed perfect control and, for this orchestra, a familiar and easy comprehensibility. Michael had been the assistant conductor of the BSO during the Steinberg regime, and in that capacity introduced the short-lived but unforgettably vivid series of Spectrum Concerts in 1969 that showcased major monuments of 20th century orchestral music.
Michael composed his Agnegram 20 years ago as a five-minute token of affection for the 90th birthday of Agnes Albert, concert pianist and board member and benefactor of the San Francisco Symphony. The high-velocity 6/8 march, apparently based on some letters concealed within her name: A-G-E-S (German Es = E flat), sounded mostly A major interchanging with F-sharp minor and F major (pitch-class A the common factor, and there was a lot of it), returning in various harmonically interesting mixtures and polymetric permutations. In an address to the audience, Michael mentioned short quotes from some of Agnes’s favorite pieces, but the only discernible was the Overture 1812. The squeaky E-flat clarinet and mallet percussion, plus slide whistle and kazoos, sounded out in force. The Boston Pops could easily pick up this successful bit of tonally inventive whimsy.
Many in the audience were hearing the 31-year-old Russian pianist Igor Levit with expectancy, remembering his remarkable CD of late Beethoven sonatas of just four years ago, and wondering how he would approach a modern exemplar of the grand Romantic style. He seemed to be tense as he walked on stage for Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, and addressed the piano with fixed concentration as he sat down, but as soon as he began playing he revealed total assurance and control. Levit de-emphasized the grandiosity; rather he focused us on relaxation as well as the brittle staccato qualities of a work that in large part is an upper-register exercise in agility and elfin wit. In the opening variations, in which the original Paganini Caprice emerges and submerges, Levit held back to the extent that one could hear the punctuations in the orchestra — woodwind and brass grace-notes, snare-drum ruffs — without diminishing his own prominence. Only in the famous Eighteenth Variation, with the “inverted” pentachord motive, did everybody let loose. Did the pianist’s memory lapse or could there have been a revision in the score that escaped me when something seemingly went wrong in the extended Marziale Variation 22? Its surging scales always seem to fight the harmony; but all was well again at the a capriccio double-octave cadenza that followed. Levit so neatly understated the final cadence, an insouciant fillip of the main motive, that one had to chuckle. It’s necessary to remember that this Rhapsody, like the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances, represents Rachmaninoff at his most original, with a sense of harmonic invention that Debussy and Ravel would have, and Stravinsky should have, understood sympathetically. This entirely welcome and triumphant read ended with the seated thousands rising with cheers.
Mahler’s First Symphony took a long time to come to birth and then to maturity — six years to achieve its almost-present form, and then three more for a final expanded orchestration, from 1888 to 1897. But the labor pains resulted in perhaps the greatest symphonic debut of any composer, not excepting Beethoven and Berlioz. Compared with Brahms and Bruckner, Dvořák and even Tchaikovsky, to name a few older contemporaries. Mahler’s First opens a vista of an entirely new symphonic world, while remaining a Golden Age Romantic monument. It’s far more classical, even retro-classical, than the quite different experiments of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems, though fully as cyclic and cohesive in form, and fully as literary, but always in the narrative manner of a Schumann Charakterstück, i.e., impressionistic, not programmatic. And the visionary melodic spirit of “Titan,” as the symphony was originally called, breathes the healing oxygen of Schubert and Chopin, not Wagner, whose massiveness becomes more prominent in Mahler’s later works.
A friend recently characterized Thomas’s version as perhaps the most cohesive recorded performance available. After yesterday’s Tanglewood performance, we can likewise attest. This one was not only thoroughly cohesive but thoroughly sensitive and exciting — indeed, the most vital finale in my live performance memory. (When I last heard it in the Shed, in 1968, my two-year-old daughter was asleep in my lap and I anticipated her waking up with the climactic cymbal crash at the end of the finale; she did, but then she listened attentively.) Michael conducted the entire performance without a score, freely waving aside the beat for long stretches in order to shape the dialogue, while elsewhere precisely concentrating the beat at every moment where the tempo changed. His empathetic communication with the players (even with the offstage trumpets through a gap in the side door, except for one or two dropped notes) seemed complete. (The famous Luftpause at m. 374 of the finale, with its harmonically gross but dramatically infallible shift from C major to D major — lasted a millisecond too long. Jascha Horenstein’s old version, on VoxBox, might be exactly right.) One could point out a number of exceptional orchestral details. The horns deserve high praise, especially for their exquisite pianissimo muted sound at No. 14 in the first movement, and with mutes removed at No. 15, ppp, very difficult (transition before the Recapitulation); the muted horns with bells up in the Ländler second movement; the entire section (8 players) standing up at No. 56 in the finale (“Triumphal. Nicht eilen. Pesante.”), as directed in the score. One small quibble: every performance I have heard in recent years, including this one, includes an inexplicable slowdown at No. 26 in the finale (mm. 296-305), with an a tempo restored at m. 306. Why? It’s not called for in the score. But this is a small matter in the context of the mastery that prevailed at every moment. Michael confidently carries the Mahlerian message into its second century.
For more on the symphony click HERE for my review of a 2016 Tufts performance.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.