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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.4 (Part 3)

While Mahler’s Forth Symphony is very different from the previous three, it also constitutes the group of Wunderhorn Symphonies with them, of which the last three had all included vocal elements. From here on, Mahler set out on a slightly different path and soon had a new source of delight and suffering entering his life in the form of Alma Mahler, née Schindler.

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Symphony No.4, Boulez / Banse / Cleveland (DG)

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Symphony No.4, Sinopoli / Banse / Dresden StK. (PROFIL Hänssler)

I have just extolled the virtues of recent Mahler Fourth recordings by David Zinman, Iván Fischer, and Michael Tilson Thomas, but if they fail to elicit more enthusiastic praise from me, it is because they share with the earlier Haitink recordings and Pierre Boulez’ (DG) a missing, hard-to-define, distinctive quality that goes beyond exquisiteness. Unlike with the Third Symphony, I am less content with sheer excellence alone in the Fourth, since the recording catalog offers so many more choices. Swift Boulez almost gets there, though, because the Cleveland Orchestra provides him with pronounced and individualist chatter of instruments that comes, like Bernstein, a little closer to the aforementioned ideal of a “Concerto for Orchestra”. What does stand out with Boulez is his first movement, which he zips through at a pace that leaves you bopping along without your mind ever tempted to wander. Taking only a minute less than Bruno Walter (who more than makes up for lost time in the last two movements), he sounds twice as fast. His soprano Juliane Banse is equally wonderful in the totally different, very broad Sinopoli recording from Dresden (PROFIL Hänssler) where the Italian (one of the few conductors to master Bruckner and Mahler equally well at a relatively young age) adds three minutes to Boulez’ 8’44” in “Das himmlische Leben”… with wildly fluctuating tempi. Banse doesn’t sing her quick parts any slower in Dresden than she does in Cleveland, only her slow parts are retarded to a point where it must have become challenging for the singer to maintain the line. It is exaggeration occasionally—well, regularly—seen in Sinopoli’s Mahler, but one can’t blame him for wanting to explore the beautifully spacious acoustic and striking sound of the orchestra both of which come across nicely on the recording.

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Symphony No.4, Kletzki / Loose / Philharmonia (EMI)

The gEMIni re-issue of Paul Kletzki’s Fourth—coupled with his acclaimed Lied—does the EMI remastering-engineers proud: the 1957 sound is far better than one might expect and the performance among the light ones that please. Paul Kletzky’s wife, Emmy Loose, sings faultlessly and wonderfully innocently, if without particular distinction beyond that. Washingtonians with a long memory and therefore skeptical of such musical Mahler-Fourth / Wife nepotism can be assured that Loose earns her inclusion in that performance on account of skill, not wedding band. [Ed.] It holds up in 2017 just as much as in 2009 and it is high time that Warner, which has taken over EMI's catalogue and tends to it very appreciably, gives this a nice re-issue as it seems currently out of print.

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Symphony No.4, Haitink / Schäfer / RCO (RCO Live)

One Mahler recording issued in 2008 truly stood out among the lot: the Concertgebouw’s performance of the Fourth Symphony with Bernard Haitink conducting and Christine Schäfer taking the soprano part. If a Fourth Symphony can easily be undone by an inappropriate soprano (Gielen/Whittlesey, Abbado/Fleming), it can’t generally be ‘made’ by a great singer. Well, maybe Schäfer could actually, because her soprano is simply perfect for “Das himmlische Leben”. Clarity and beauty of tone are a given with her, but the innocence, the angelic ring that she believably exudes is exactly what the symphony (and Mahler) asks for. In theory a treble might be better, still, but put into practice it simply doesn’t work.

Fortunately Schäfer doesn’t have to rescue anything here, she’s simply the crowning glory of what is a superb performance. Haitink is generally short on cutting and acerbic tones in Mahler and long on beauty. So here. This Fourth Symphony (his fourth commercial recording of it!) benefits from beauty and suffers not from the absence of tortuous and biting sounds, as for example the Sixth would. Generous, rich, and yet transparent, there is plenty of that beauty to go around here. Among his three live recordings (two with the RCO and one with the Berlin Philharmonic), this is the one with the quickest pulse. The RCO plays with near-perfection (this is a true live recording, not patched from several performances), its usual gorgeousness, and grandeur of sound—all caught perfectly by the recording engineers. This sumptuous performance has now replaced Inbal, my previous top choice.

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Symphony No.4, Gielen / Whittlesey / South West German RSO (Hänssler)

Michael Gielen’s Mahler is more and more becoming a favorite of mine. Here is a conductor with a modernist perspective of Mahler (like Abbado and Chailly) who (unlike Abbado and Chailly) can really rip through these symphonies instead of making them sound ‘lovely’. There is little of that ‘well behaved’ sound in his recordings with the South-Western Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden. Perhaps because his players are not as seasoned a Mahler orchestra as are Chicago, Vienna, and even Berlin? His Fourth suffers from the same problem Abbado’s does, though: Three good movements and then big a let-down from the soprano. Christine Whittlesey’s problem is not self-conscious artificiality but that she sounds like the evil witch from one of Brother’s Grimm fairy tales. You’d think that once she finishes with “Die eng’lischen Stimmen / Ermuntern die Sinnen, / Daß alles für Freuden erwacht” she’ll rush back home to roast Hänsel. Others react more kindly to her voice, but it manages to rub me the wrong way, alright. (Gielen’s inclusion of the sublime Schreker “Prelude to a Drama” probably makes for the best filler on any disc with the Fourth Symphony, though.) [Ed.] Gielen's cycle has just been re-boxed by SWR Classic: This arguable dud apart (and they all have at least one dud), it is probably one of the two all-around best Mahler cycles out there. While this second re-issue also doesn't include the fillers that I find so attractive in the single discs, it does include absolutely all the Mahler that Gielen recorded with the South-Western Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg and covers 17 CDs and a DVD of the Ninth Symphony.

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Symphony No.4, Chailly / Bonney / RCO (Decca)

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Symphony No.4, Szell / Raskin / Cleveland (Decca)

Another wonderful and appropriate filler are the Seven Early Songs by Berg. The above mentioned Abbado offers them (and here, unlike with Mahler, Fleming really shines)—as does the Ricardo Chailly recording with the Concertgebouw and Barbara Bonney. Like Gielen, the recording can be difficult to get outside the complete box (Arkiv currently lists it, actually), which is a shame as neither collections—Gielen’s or Chailly’s—include any of the ‘fillers’. Chailly’s Fourth is unwavering in its forward-momentum… steady and secure like a sewing machine. Understated, but surreptitiously powerful. The playing (aided by excellent sound) is three-dimensional. There isn’t a more delicate, more loving third movement on record. This is a monument to well thought-out craftsmanship of the highest order. ([Ed.] Chailly has re-recorded the Fourth in Leipzig - issued on DVD/Blu-ray on Accentus, this time with the fine (scarcely divine but appropriately young) Christina Landshamer as the soprano.)

Many consider the George Szell recording (Sony) with Judith Raskin one of the finest recordings; inexplicably it has gone out of print... though thankfully it can now be had as an ArkivMusic licensed CDR re-print (if you can't find the original cheaper on Amazon). It should be heard; it remains one of the finest in the catalog even after so many years of strong competition. The same cannot be said of every recording that has old age on its side. When, after timid discovery, I started listening to Mahler in earnest, it was usually a Bruno Walter recording that I went with. My first impressions of the First, Second, and Fourth were with Walter. Such early impressions are usually indelible, but in this case they have all been dislodged and surpassed. His Fourth (Sony) with the New York Philharmonic from May of 1945, for example, is nice and brisk, and the less than perfect playing, occasionally sour, can be said to add lots of character. (More character, still, comes from the so-so 1945 recording quality!) But it is full of strange touches, too. Take the first movement, where Walter doesn’t hurry up the introductory sleigh-bell phrase and consequently has no room or time for a ritardando. (Boulez almost does the opposite: begins fast and refuses to slow down.) By not making much of a distinction between “Deliberate” and “Very leisurely”, it sounds like his sleigh grinds into the snow and never quite gets going again. For reasons of interpretation and authority, Walter is always worth coming back to. But if I had only two or three Mahler Fourths on my shelf, I’d not put up with the technical limitations this effort demands excusing.

The font used in the title is "Eckmann Regular"

Mahler 4 Choices

1. Bernard Haitink / Christine Schäfer, RCO, RCO Live

2. Eliahu Inbal / Helen Donath, Frankfurt RSO, Denon / Brilliant

3. Paul Kletzki / Emmy Loose, Philharmonia Orchestra, EMI

4. Esa Pekka Salonen / Barbara Hendricks, LA Phil, Sony via Arkiv

5. George Szell / Judith Raskin, Cleveland, Sony via Arkiv

6. Riccardo Chailly / Barbara Bonney, RCO, Decca

Mahler 4 SACD Choice

Bernard Haitink / Christine Schäfer, RCO, RCO Live

This continues Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.4 (Part 1)

Gustav Mahler. Postcard by Hans Boehler.
Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives


Anonymous said...

Here's a dark horse: Abravanel and the Utah Symphony. One of the freshest versions that I know, even though there are better orchestras that have recorded the work.

jfl said...

Really? I've always known about Abravanel's Mahler, of course, but never dipped my toes or ears. I think it's available as a box on REGIS/Alto now, which makes it attractive. Will keep it in mind -- thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Just to make clear that I haven' listened to the whole Abravanel cycle, just the 4th symphony. But I stand by what I said about the 4th. Thanks!

jfl said...

I'll make that my first Abravanel-Mahler point of exploration then!