Earth Shattering 

20th-century classical music that will knock your SmartWool socks off

On May 27, 1906, after leading the dress rehearsal of his tragic Symphony No. 6, Gustav Mahler so feared the darkness he had unleashed with his music that he walked up and down his room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself. Over 95 years later, on September 11, 2001, the day before Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony were set to perform and record Mahler's Symphony No. 6 (SFS Media), much of America was in a similar state, experiencing the hideous consequences of terrorism.

Rather than succumb to collective shock and scrap long-laid plans to perform and record the work, Tilson Thomas and his forces channeled all their anguish into Mahler's music. The result is perhaps the most stunning, carefully thought out, deeply moving performance of the symphony on record.

Tilson Thomas begins the work at a fast clip, indulging not a moment in sentiment. One is immediately struck by the meticulousness of the playing, every soloist evidencing subtle accents that reflect the conductor's all-encompassing understanding of the work. Mahler's vision is vast, and Tilson Thomas is right there with him, journeying through pastoral hillsides filled with the soft sounds of cowbells into the depths of despair with a conviction that makes sense of Mahler's musical meanderings. When the military marches through whatever brief moments of tranquility Mahler can muster, Tilson Thomas marches with him, voicing emotional swings so great that they require 90 minutes to express. The andante is gorgeous, the 31-minute final movement so perfectly executed that its periods of silence and stillness are as shattering as its many climaxes.

This is also unquestionably the best-sounding recording of the work. Available from

www.sfsymphony.org or at major outlets, it is recorded in multi-channel SACD, a process that allows SACD players to reproduce sound virtually as good as that offered by analogue LP. Listeners without SACD will also enjoy fine sound, albeit in conventional two-channel digital.

Over the next few years, Tilson Thomas and the SFS will release recordings of the remaining Mahler symphonies. Although it's a shame that their recent mesmerizing performance of Mahler's great "Das Lied von der Erde" was not similarly recorded, music lovers -- hell, even rock lovers who want to be blown away -- have much to look forward to.

Bargain label Naxos continues its Samuel Barber series with Barber: Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.559044), featuring violinist James Buswell with Marin Alsop conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This is a delicious pairing of the great Violin Concerto, Op. 14 with the student Serenade for Strings, Op. 1; early Music for a Scene from Shelley, Op. 7; and mature Souvenirs (Ballet Suite), Op. 28. The sound is not as full, rich and spacious as that on full-price performances by violinists Hilary Hahn and Gil Shaham; nor can Buswell, who plays quite well, equal either Hahn's breathtaking finale or Shaham's rich low tones and myriad accents. Nonetheless, this low-price issue of this marvelous romantic masterpiece, initially considered unplayable by the man who commissioned it, is a definite thumbs-up.

Another recommendation goes to Barber: Orchestral Works Vol. 2 (Naxos 8.559088), featuring the same orchestra and conductor performing the lyrical Cello Concerto, Op. 22 with cellist Wendy Warner; the driving Medea Ballet Suite, Op. 23 originally created for Martha Graham; and the beloved Adagio for Strings, Op. 11. Though Barber won the Fifth Annual Award of the Music Critics Circle of New York for the engaging cello concerto, it is far less known than the violin concerto -- all the more reason to give it a hearing.

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