Sunday, 10 January 2016

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax bring a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 and with an excellent line up of soloists and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, a strong performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C

Michael Tilson Thomas has been Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra since 1995. He is Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to conducting the world’s leading orchestras, he is also noted for his work as a composer and a producer of multimedia projects that are dedicated to music education and the re-imagination of the concert experience. He has won eleven Grammys for his recordings, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts and is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France.

In this year’s season, he has been celebrating both his 20th anniversary as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and his 70th birthday with a United States and European tour with the San Francisco Symphony, a tour of New York and the west coast of America with the London Symphony Orchestra, appearances in New York and Washington, D.C. with the New World Symphony, and concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Tilson Thomas’ latest live recording for the San Francisco Symphony’s own record label, SFS Media , features two works by Beethoven. For the Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor he is joined by Emanuel Ax and for the Mass in C major, by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and soloists, Joelle Harvey (soprano) , Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano) , William Burden (tenor)  and Shenyang (bass-baritone)

Recorded live at the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco in 2013 the opening of the Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 receives nicely crisp, rounded phrasing from the orchestra with some lovely string counterpoint. When Emanuel Ax enters he is beautifully paced with lovely phrasing,  building to some terrific passages full of drive and power, yet with such fine clarity. Michael Tilson Thomas accompanies most sensitively, with Ax building moments of fine tension. Indeed the orchestral support is powerful and sensitive in equal measure. Throughout, Ax brings his superb touch with a cadenza full of strength and supreme fluency, beautifully developed with a lovely build up to the coda.

Ax brings much poetry to the opening of the Largo. When the orchestra enters Tilson Thomas draws some beautifully shaped phrases from his San Francisco players. There is some beautifully nuanced playing from both soloist and orchestra, with much poetry and subtle dynamic changes.  

A beautifully sprung, buoyant Rondo: Allegro brings more fine, crisp phrasing from Ax as well as some wonderfully fluent passages. There are some very fine orchestral passages as Tilson Thomas builds the music with superb fluency from Ax as we are led to a wonderfully done coda.  

This is a wonderful performance from these artists. The enthusiastic applause is kept in but otherwise one is hardly aware of the audience.  The SACD layer of this disc reveals a very fine recording.  

The live 2014 recording of Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, Op. 86 is from the same venue. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus brings a lovely rich opening to the Kyrie before they are joined by the orchestra. Soprano, Joelle Harvey is in fine voice as is bass-baritone Shenyang, surging to some fine peaks. Indeed the line-up of soloists when tenor William Burden and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor join is very strong indeed. Michael Tilson Thomas keeps a beautifully focused musical line.

There is quite a stunning outburst from the chorus and orchestra as the Gloria opens, this choir proving particularly flexible and fluent.  Tenor, William Burden is very fine here before a heartfelt contribution from mezzo, Kelley O’Connor. There are fine contributions from rich, firm bass-baritone, Shenyang and a pure voiced soprano, Joelle Harvey. The choir rise to some fine moments with Tilson Thomas never allowing the music to flag. The conclusion is full of strength, buoyancy and incisiveness.

The chorus and orchestra bring a tremendously dramatic Credo with really incisive singing and orchestral playing. Again the four soloists are very excellent, blending so well. Tilson Thomas shapes and controls impressively, building moments of drama and excitement brilliantly. The fugal choral passages are wonderfully done.

There is a sensitively controlled Sanctus from both choir and orchestra, rising to some fine dynamically contrasting passages as well as some finely woven passages for the soloists. It is impressive how Tilson Thomas builds certain passages, always aware of the overarching structure with a beautifully shaped prelude to the dynamic coda.

Again Tilson Thomas shapes the Agnus Dei so well with a beautifully controlled ebb and flow to the music. The soloists bring some fine textures as the pace quickens with taut choral and orchestral moments before the lovely coda.

If the performance of the Mass is less exceptional than the concerto it is only that the concerto is so fine. This strong performance of the Mass brings so much to enjoy. 

The recording is again excellent. Applause is kept in at the conclusion but again the audience is commendably quiet.

This is a disc that I will be happy to pop into my player on regular occasions for a fine Beethoven concert. There are useful booklet notes.

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