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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900)
Luba Orgonášová (soprano)
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. 13-15 November 2006, Tonhalle, Zurich
RCA-BMG 88697 168522 [57:21]
Experience Classicsonline

ArkivMusic list around 100 Mahler Fourths on their website, so what makes this new one stand out from the rest? For a start it's the latest instalment in David Zinman's Tonhalle cycle, which has already yielded one of the most rewarding 'Resurrections' in recent memory (see review). Not only that, he has produced a thoughtful First, complete with discarded 'Blumine' movement. And although his Third was marginally less convincing than either (see review) this crisp, invigorating Fourth marks a welcome return to form.
Mahler's Fourth has a distinguished history on record, and with it comes a wide variety of performance styles. Listeners who prefer a relaxed, genial approach to this, the last of Mahler's 'Wunderhorn' symphonies, will be spoilt for choice; of course those who relish a real challenge can always try Roger Norrington's controversial reading on Hänssler 093164, more of which later.
Zinman's Mahler Fourth offers a happy medium without also being an unsatisfactory compromise. From the outset it's clear this is not one of those well-upholstered performances. Make no mistake, though, there is still plenty of charm and 'lift' here, but none of the cloying sentimentality the score so often attracts.
Philip Barford describes this symphony as 'a masterpiece of delicate counterpoint, Mozartian lucidity and sensuous beauty' (Philip Barford: Mahler Symphonies and Songs. BBC Music Guides, London, 1970) and it's a mark of Zinman's achievement that he captures all these qualities. The Zurich band play with complete conviction, phrasing and pointing with precision and feeling, especially at the start of the first movement. The flutes and sleigh bells and the dipping melody that follows have rarely sounded as transparent as they do here.
Clearly Zinman's Mahler owes much to historically informed performance practice (HIP) but what is so refreshing is that he wipes away the accumulated grime from these vast canvases without damaging the delicate pigments underneath. Norrington is inclined to be much more cavalier, swabbing away most of the detail as well.
Death really does lead the music of the second movement. This spooky Ländler – Mahler’s very own danse macabre – has just the right amount of inflection; the solo violinist’s playing ‘wie eine Fiedel’ is superbly realised too. The Sony-BMG engineers deserve praise for capturing all the spatial information that gives this recording its depth and breadth. Even the tiniest instrumental details are rendered with great clarity and naturalness; indeed, this must be one of the most tactile, 'hear through' performances of this symphony on disc.
Of course this work is not just about detail although there is plenty of it it's also about overall structure. Zinman has a solid grasp of Mahler's musical architecture. He paces the Ländler very convincingly, so when the music broadens at 6:26 it sounds entirely spontaneous. All too often this strange movement comes across as a series of discrete phrases wrapped in parentheses but Zinman manages to achieve a remarkable sense of organic growth and musical unity here.
Thus far Zinman’s performance is wonderfully buoyant, aerated even. Of course his sympathetic response to Mahler's delicate scoring counts for much, which is more than one can say for Norrington, who barely gives the notes time to breathe before pressing on regardless. The music’s topography is lost in the process, its hills and valleys hammered flat. It’s all so relentless and it sells Mahler short at every turn.
By contrast Zinman delves into the score in a way that is altogether more illuminating. In particular the Adagio has the usual ‘sensuous beauty’, the usual ebb and flow, but there is a surprising undertow as well. Seldom have the climaxes sounded so spectral, sending a real shiver up the spine. And surely there is more than a hint of the valedictory Ninth in those disembodied figures? Zinman crowns this movement with a peroration that yawns like an abyss, pounding timps and cymbals adding to the thrilling effect.
After the beautifully etched close to the Adagio comes the child-heaven finale. As in so many of Mahler's final movements this is make or break time. Great sopranos past and present have tackled this faux-naif style of singing with mixed results. Ever the iconoclast Leonard Bernstein even opted for a boy soloist in his DG account, which really doesn’t work at all.
Zinman’s choice of soloist – the Bratislava-born soprano Luba Orgonášová – is interesting, and it’s one that will probably divide critics the most. The singer is set further back than usual, which makes for a much more integrated sound picture; thankfully audibility and diction aren’t sacrificed in the process. If there are any caveats it’s that Orgonášova’s voice is more soft-grained than we are used to and it’s a touch too mature to suggest childlike innocence. In spite of these minor reservations she makes a fairly convincing job of it. An acquired taste, certainly, but very much in keeping with Zinman’s fresh approach to this loveliest of scores.
This wondrous new Fourth – and for once the superlative is warranted, for it is a performance full of wonder – confirms Zinman as a Mahlerian of real stature. The reading may not displace the likes of Mengelberg, Szell, Klemperer et al but it does deserve a place alongside them. As for recent rivals this simply knocks Norrington into a cocked hat.
The Sony-BMG disc sounds splendid in both its CD and SACD incarnations, with the higher-resolution format offering an extra degree of transparency and detail. Some listeners may find the sound a trifle lightweight, a criticism levelled at earlier discs in the cycle, but what we are hearing is the music relieved of all its excess baggage.
So, another fine instalment in what is surely the most significant – and satisfying – Mahler cycle in progress. Roll on the Fifth!
Dan Morgan


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