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“Mahler: Origins and Legacy” is the latest installment in the
excellent “Keeping Score: Revealing Classical Music” series,
released by the San Francisco Symphony on their own label,
SFS Media. As with the other seven entries in this series,
musical director Michael Tilson Thomas takes the viewer/listener
on a journey into the mind of the featured composer, visiting
where he lived and composed. Cultural and political formative
influences are discussed in-depth, as they pertain to the
pieces at hand.

With this latest entry about Gustav Mahler (1860-1911),
the single disc format is replaced by a two-DVD set, with a
total running time of more than three and one-half hours.
The focus of the series is also expanded from a single work
to include an emphasis on Mahler’s “First Symphony,” his
“Songs of a Wayfarer,” the Adagietto from his “Fifth Symphony,”
the Scherzo from his “Seventh Symphony,” and finally the Rondo
from his “Symphony No. 9.” Throughout the “Keeping
Score” series, principal orchestral musicians are extensively
interviewed, and contribute their insights.

The “Origins and Legacy” film found on Disc One featured
Tilson-Thomas visiting key Mahler residences, including the
small Bohemian town where he was born and Maiernigg, his
occasional residence after 1900. While in Maiernigg, Mahler
composed his middle symphonies, as well as the “Rückert Lieder.”

It was a real treat to watch Tilson-Thomas’s face, as he entered
Mahler’s private villa at Maiernigg, and gained first-hand
experience of Mahler’s living and working environment. As viewers
of this footage, we were taken into Mahler’s world in a way that
was hitherto unavailable. During this “travelogue,” various photos
of documents and letters from Mahler’s acquaintances and
contemporaries were on display, thereby enriching this
biographical portrait.

Throughout the film, excerpts of Mahler’s music were played,
as well as examples of the native folk music that provided a
blueprint for much of it. For example, a tavern band was shown
playing a type of ländler tune, which was incorporated into the
second movement of his “First Symphony.” A military regiment
was shown playing a march, which was another example of the
music in Mahler’s environment during his formative years. His
Jewish heritage was also discussed.  There was even footage
of a man playing a Hurdy-Gurdy!

One of the ingenious technical devices used in this documentary
was the occasional use of double exposure filming techniques.
For example, in the first movement of the “First Symphony,”
while the three offstage trumpets were playing as though loudly
from afar, an image of a soldier in military garb was superimposed
over the San Francisco Symphony musicians, thus providing a
picture of what Mahler might have had in mind when composing
that particular passage. The only noticeable omission in the film,
as well as the entire set for that matter, was Mahler’s
“Symphony No. 8.” I consider this a serious faux pas on the part
of the film makers, who managed to touch upon every other
Mahler symphony. Other than that, I believe the set is fantastic.

Disc Two contained wonderful current performances of Mahler’s
works, with a particularly sensitive account of the “Wayfarer”
songs by baritone Thomas Hampson. Although they omitted
the “repeat” in the first movement, Michael Tilson Thomas
and the San Francisco Symphony also gave a great
performance of Mahler’s “First Symphony.”

An outstanding feature of the “Keeping Score” series has been
the unsurpassed, state-of-the-art camera work, and this set is
no exception. The recorded sound was also top-notch. Bonus
footage, trailers and advertising clips were also included.

Like the others in the series, this two-DVD set from 2011 is a
wonderful educational tool. I recommend it to anyone,
regardless of their level of expertise and familiarity with Mahler’s
music. With exception of the omission of the “Eighth Symphony,”
I can’t praise it highly enough.