MAHLER: Symphony No.4;
BERG: Seven Early
Barbara Bonney (soprano)/Royal
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
DECCA 466 720-2 [73'56"]
MAHLER: Symphony No.4
Juliane Banse (soprano)/Cleveland
DG 463 257-2 [53'32"]
MAHLER: Symphony No.4
Lisa Della Casa (soprano)/Chicago
Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
RCA Living Stereo 09026
63533 2 [53'44"]
Three more Mahler Fours to consider alongside recent ones from Colin Davis
(RCA), Rattle (EMI), Levi (Telarc), Barbirolli, Britten (both BBC Legends)
and Gatti (RCA). Of these, Gatti's [75605 51345 2] is a revelation regarding
the sinister sub-text of the first movement, and how convincing his contrasting
choices of tempi are. Rattle too offers teasing tempo relationships - as
advised by the late Berthold Goldschmidt's memory of Mahler performances
in the 'twenties. I'm delighted to have all these CDs but I really wouldn't
want to be without either Davis [09026 63533 2] - for his exceptional slow
movement and his overall affection and spontaneity - or Gatti's individuality.
Of the new three, it's Boulez that I add to my shortlist. In his booklet
notes, Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange states that the Fourth
Symphony was the result of Mahler's desire to write with "clarity, economy
and transparency". This is how Boulez conducts - and he leads a quite wonderful
The first movement of Mahler 4 is the most revealing of these conductors'
approaches. In comparison, but also on his own terms, Chailly's rendition
(which I listened to several days before the Boulez arrived) is heavily
underlined and phrasally too moulded. He sounds like a man who has to do
something with the music - but is often unconvincingly manipulative. In this
all-important first movement, Chailly too readily sectionalises paragraphs
thus losing this movement's shape and direction. I do not sense a true
involvement with Mahler's text (unlike Gatti who has searched imaginatively
beyond the notation and has thought through his tempi so that they relate
to a whole).
I have another problem with the Chailly - the recording quality. The
Concertgebouw's acoustic is of course among the best and Decca have provided
very beautiful sound. (As a general rule, I am not easily seduced by beauty
of sound as a goal in itself, or false emotions - either or both might camouflage
a lack of musical insight.) What I'm uncomfortable with is Decca using the
full depth of this auditorium for one of Mahler's most intimate works. Details
are always clear (albeit some internal ones are not ideally defined) but
those from the back of the hall are not as tangible as I would like. But
having set the orchestra in a deep front-to-back perspective why does the
Leader's violin (including his tone-higher appearance in the second movement)
sound so close? Bonney, just a tad affected in the finale, is equally a tad
close in the balance. Chailly does though have the distinct advantage of
using antiphonal violins (not his usual arrangement) which, of course, enhances
these sections' dialogue - but I wish I heard some real interpretation behind
the surface glamour of some undoubtedly fine playing. (Viewed historically,
if that description really must be used, I am familiar with Willem Mengelberg's
Concertgebouw Orchestra recording made at a 1939 concert. His - to modern
ears - very personal view [Chailly's model?] may be thought wilful. But for
all his mannerisms, Mengelberg is conducting from the inside, while Chailly
is applying his view. Therein lies the difference.)
For me Boulez is in a different league. He enjoys a clear, closer acoustic
- Cleveland's Masonic Auditorium - which provides the ideal space for Boulez's
pristine account. Boulez's sheer intelligence informs every bar of this
immaculately prepared performance, one abounding in pertinent detail, judicious
blending of colour and unexaggerated phrasing. Whatever Gatti is able to
suggest, Boulez doesn't need to - his reading makes perfect musical sense.
Boulez does conduct with plenty of feeling and sensitivity - I say this for
people who still mistakenly regard Boulez as a cold fish - and is joined
in this respect by a thoroughly convinced Cleveland Orchestra. Juliane Banse
brings a more appropriate naturalness of response - innocence - both to the
text and Mahler's setting than her American colleague.
Now returned to its Living Stereo livery, I approached this reissue of Reiner's
1958 taping with some caution - this is a performance I've never liked. I
still don't! What I must comment on first is the quality of sound. I cannot
now recall how this recording has reproduced in earlier LP or CD pressings
that I've heard but not kept. I'm pretty certain though that none of them
have sounded as sweet or detailed as here. This is remastering par excellence
and will delight collectors of early stereo recordings - especially those
who regard them as finer than some of today's DDD offerings. Unfortunately
Reiner suffers from conspicuous editing - e.g. at 17'28" and 17'54" in the
slow movement and 4'48" in the Finale (right in the middle of a phrase!).
There are similarities between Reiner and Boulez as interpreters. From both
the Symphony's opening is frisky but Boulez has a delightful lightness of
touch and an engaging rhythmic sense; and how elegant from Boulez is the
episode that begins at 2'34" (I was reminded of Stravinsky's Pulcinella).
While Boulez is musically absorbing, I find Reiner superficial. The flare-up
of sound from 10'43" in the Chicago first movement seems to me to be gratuitously
noisy; and Reiner's account of the slow movement is emotionally remote. For
those who feel differently I strongly suggest - even if you have one CD already
- that you investigate this latest transfer.
I like Chailly's Berg Songs but wouldn't prefer Bonney to (again) Banse on
Sinopoli's recent Teldec CD [3984-22904-2] which enjoys, to my mind, clearer
instrumental differentiation and more tangible realisation of Berg's colours.
As recorded (and this applies to the Mahler also) Bonney is allowed to cover
orchestral detail which is not heard as easily as it should be. That said,
Chailly is probably at his best in early and progressive twentieth-century
music (as his stunning Varese collection for Decca demonstrates) and he appears
more naturally expressive in Berg's Songs than I find him in Mahler 4.
Incidentally, this is the most disappointing Mahler yet from Chailly - I've
had a far more positive reaction to his previous Mahler recordings, particularly
6 and 10.
Swings and roundabouts - another reviewer, another opinion! Ruth Ziesak is
a wonderful singer for Gatti (and in four additional songs), and his seamless
join between the slow and last movements is ideal (Boulez's is too long).
And what is the ticking noise at the beginning of Reiner's account underneath
the chimes? Something mechanical or a deliberate attempt to re-create a
musical-box? Answers on a postcard please!
Tony Duggan's review of this recording
also Tony Duggan's review of this