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"Masterpieces in Miniature"
Henry Litolff: Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4, Opus 102
Gustav Mahler: Blumine
Gabriel Fauré: Pavane, Opus 50
Claude Debussy: La Plus que lente
Franz Schubert: Entr’acte No. 3 from Rosamunde, D. 797
Charles Ives/Henry Brant: The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Opus 34, no. 14
Antonín Dvorák: Legend for Orchestra, Opus 59, no. 6
Jean Sibelius: Valse triste, Opus 44, no. 1
Frederick Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Edvard Grieg: The Last Spring, Opus 34, no. 2
Léo Delibes: Cortège de Bacchus from Sylvia

Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
Recorded at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California (February 2-6, 2010, September 26-28, 2013 and May 22-25, 2014) – 78’08
Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc SFS 821936-0060-2 – Liner notes in English, French, and German

I can’t imagine there are too many people who have bought an album for the supplemental features. “Masterpieces in Miniature” though, the latest effort from the San Francisco Symphony, is an entire showcase of such smaller works. Tilson Thomas, the now 69 year-old conductor, reminisces in his liner notes how the inspiration for this project came about. He recalls playing, as a child, from a piano book of short pieces by the great composers and how, as an older student, he was enthralled with the attention master teachers would give these short works. And it is that care that makes this such an enjoyable listen. These are serious works, written by some of the greatest composers, far from “easy listening.” One need only to sample the Ives and Debussy to be aware of that.

Yet, by their very nature, these pieces communicate with a most accessible economy that makes the diversity of their styles a delicious smorgasbord. From the thundering sonorities of Ives’ Concord Symphony to the graceful saunter of Fauré’s Pavane, the album moves from composer to composer with ease. Credit is due to Tilson Thomas who shapes an engaging program and also leads his orchestra deftly. After nearly 20 seasons together, MTT and the SFS have a palpable affection for each other. That the orchestra plays with such ease and cohesion is a credit to the maestro’s work over the decades. The sound is so cool throughout all the sections, particularly the violins, that the luxurious melodies by Schubert, Rachmaninoff, and Sibelius, among others, are disarming to the listener while being irresistibly engaging.

There are indeed fireworks on this recording, though. The delicate flair of Henry Litolff’s Scherzo from Concerto symphonique is a definite highlight thanks to the easy precision of the SFS and superstar Yuja Wang’s suave piano performance. They play at a brilliantly fast tempo and manage to make it sound as if it could go faster. Ives’ aforementioned Concord Symphony is excerpted here with the third movement. The unmistakably “American” sound of the hymn quotation with Ives’ thick, dissonant harmonies make it a powerful showcase for the orchestra’s brass. One might be leery in piling up somewhat melancholy works by Dvorák, Sibelius, Delius, and Grieg sequentially, but it really does work here thanks to the direct playing of the band. The Grieg in particular is breathtaking at its hushed conclusion.

Mixed with a splash of Mahler, this smorgasbord is a delight in this beautifully recorded 5.1 SACD. For me, it is a welcome reminder of the orchestra’s outstanding past recordings, and the unique acoustic they capture. As to this release, it is fully convincing as to the wealth of color and beauty in such small, but lovingly composed pieces. They are indeed masterpieces, particularly when played so splendidly.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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