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The San Francisco Symphony has released their penultimate recording in MTT’s Mahler cycle, which is so far the finest cycle I know – albeit expensive.

For this recording of Das Lied, MTT uses two male singers, Stuart Skelton and Thomas Hampson. Skelton is superb, as good as I’ve heard in this piece, which is extraordinarily difficult for the tenor. He projects heroically and still imparts true and great characterization and meaning to the text – his bitter vehemence in “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” is the first of its kind I’ve heard, and now seems the only appropriate way to perform this music. Hampson is the only problematic feature of the recording. He is a great singer and artist, but can be mannered at times, and does fall into this trap at times. There is a big difference between a woman singing the low part, in which the expression is about a man, and a man singing it, when the expression becomes about himself. This is true to the conception of Mahler as an opera composer who only wrote symphonies, but Hampson does emote to the extreme in his entrance to “Der Einsame im Herbst” – nothing like Janet Baker imperceptibly appearing out of the music itself. Still, he does find greater focus as the performance goes along, and sings beautifully throughout.

As with all the other entries in this cycle, the quality of sound is incredible – in SACD format you are RIGHT THERE! And the playing is as technically assured and musically expressive as one will hear. MTT’s conception has consistently been thought-through, with an attention to phrasing and counterpoint that is wonderful. No Mahler cycle can be both definitive and perfectly done, but this is excitingly, heroically close to that ideal.

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