CD Review/Classical: MASTERPIECES IN MINIATURE (San Francisco Symphony)

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by Tony Frankel on November 22, 2014



A confession: I’ve never been a fan of classical compilation CDs. Whatever the conceit—The Greatest Hits of (fill in composer) or Romantic Favorites—collections tend to consist of incongruous pieces, selected for no other reason than that the publisher had them lying around and didn’t know what else to do with them. In addition, the selections often don’t flow together well, and their juxtaposition can be downright jarring. As such, I often find myself skipping some tracks, enjoying a few others, and ultimately tossing the CD back on the shelf to gather dust.

What a relief that San Francisco Symphony’s Masterpieces in Miniature, released last week, isn’t some slipshod collection dusted off from the last 20 years of Michael Tilson Thomas’s brilliant association with the sterling outfit. Half of the 12 selections were recorded on the same program, Sep. 26-28, 2013, and 5 were recorded just 6 months ago, May 22-25, 2014.


The conceit of these mostly gentle, lyrical compositions is twofold. As explained in MTT’s liner notes, the short works, clocking in from 5:29 to 7:36, all exist in different versions. Many were born as piano pieces and each was orchestrated by the composer (the sole standout being Henry Brant’s 1994 orchestration of Ives’s piano sonata “The Alcotts”).

Secondly, they were often played as encores by musicians who took special delight in finding the most personal way of presenting them. Along with MTT’s exhaustive Mahler recording project, this affectionate, heartfelt collection bears the stamp of a maestro who has put much thought into every phrase. The recording quality also creates the impression of a pleasing proximity to the players—qualifying it as the proverbial next best thing to being there.

Instead of interspersing loud and soft selections (creating that jarring quality I spoke of), MTT bookends this agreeable excursion with delightful, blood-pounding rousers: Léo Delibes’ majestic march Cortège de Bacchus from his ballet, Sylvia, and the tricky, intricately playful Scherzo from Henry Litolff’s Concerto symphonique no. 4, which gets a blazingly crisp interpretation from pianist Yuja Wang, a frequent collaborator with MTT (the two will be touring with the London Symphony Orchestra in March and April, 2015).

In between these two are a dreamy Debussy (La Plus que lente), a pastoral Schubert (Entr’acte No. 3 written for the play Rosamunde), a sweeping Dvořák (Legend for Orchestra), an elegiac Grieg (The Last Spring), and a folk-song inspired tone poem by Delius (On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring).


The luxuriant strings dominate the pieces, some of which are overly familiar but nonetheless welcome here—Fauré’s Pavane; Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise; Sibelius’s Valse triste. A special rarely heard treat is Mahler’s Blumine, which originally served as the second of five movements in his First Symphony. Excised after the symphony’s third performance at the Berlin premiere in 1896, you would be hard-pressed to find it included in current concerts of the symphony (Blumine was first published in 1968). No doubt as “sentimentally impassioned” as the composer believed it to be (he called it a “love-episode”), it is alternately rapturous and melancholic.

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photos © SF Symphony

Masterpieces in Miniature
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall
total playing time: 78:08
available at

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