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Mahler: Symphony No.4, Four Early Songs (orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews)  Ruth Ziesak, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti  BMG Classics 75605 51345 2
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The Fourth has always been Mahler's most accessible symphony, the one that newcomers are often pointed to for their first contact, even though I would argue a case for that deserved accessibility masking a more profound and disturbing work than many imagine.

It's a work that shows him enjoying a new mastery of form along with a new-found confidence, so it repays close attention by the listener and for that demands a special effort on the part of the conductor for his performance to be lifted out from the ordinary.

Daniele Gatti is forging a well-deserved reputation as a Mahler interpreter these days and there is room in a very crowded list for this new recording. His grasp of the many-faceted nature of this most popular of Mahler's works is impressive, even though a few of his interpretative touches, some tempo changes from bar to bar, might bother those more experienced Mahlerites whose predilection is for the "hands-off" approach in this composer. I think Gatti's interventions work superbly, grow out of the score and allow us to see those deeper levels of meaning that are undoubtedly there waiting for us. On no occasion does he betray lapse of taste or give the impression he is imposing his own personality on the music. They make me think he comes out of the tradition of Mengelberg in this work, controlling and interpreting every bar and note.

There's no doubt Gatti submits the first movement to a deeper analysis than is sometimes the case with the slower, reflective passages lovingly and warmly conveyed and the sharper, quicker ones jerky and piquant, not missing the grotesqueries beneath the surface. The complexity of themes in this movement - Mahler's unique "continuous variation" technique which had its first mature outing in this work  - gains so much when the conductor carefully delineates his tempi theme to theme. Gatti does this but is careful not to do it so much he impedes the unfolding drama. This balanced approach pays dividends in the development where the further variation the themes go through have been made more memorable by the distinctive way they were first presented and therefore we hear a close knitting together of the movement that acknowledges its careful detailing. The central crisis of the movement, in fact the only really troubled moment in the whole work, is when Mahler stirs up a climax that finally unleashes the trumpet fanfare he will recall at the start of the Fifth Symphony. Mahler called this the "kleiner appell" ("little call") and under Gatti it has pungency especially when accompanied by some very vivid bells indeed that are more menacing and nightmarish than we are often used to at this point.

The central impression of the symphony having two faces, reflection contrasted with restlessness, continues in the second movement. Here the Trios have even more moulded contours than their near-counterparts in the first, and on first hearing border on the mannered. It's a close run thing but I think Gatti stops short of spoiling things.  The acid test for me was that, even after repeated listenings, they didn't pall, perhaps because they are delivered with aplomb and imagination. I couldn't help smiling each time they returned and that's usually a good sign. I do believe there should be humour in the mix of this movement and am surprised how some conductors don't realise this and bring it out as Gatti does. At times you even have the impression he may be sending the piece up, but I think it can stand it. To counterbalance this the "out-of-tune" violin solo sounds really sinister and a special word of praise is due to the principal horn too.

In the slow movement there is an intensity in the hushed pianissimi that gets swept away by a remarkably muscular attack in the climaxes. Gatti's overall tempo is not so slow you lose any idea of where the music is going either. At the very start there is a serene, withdrawn quality to the playing of the strings matched against a very mournful oboe. This movement is a complex theme and variations and Gatti seems well aware of this in his grasp of tempo relationships, nowhere better illustrated than in the passage between bars 222 and 282 in the course of which Mahler marks four succeeding increases in tempo. These tempo "steps-up" ("agogic" in Floros's estimation) find him in total control of the music and is most impressive. The climax of the movement, the climax of the entire work, in fact -  the hurling open of the gates to heaven, timpani crashing out a theme hitherto heard only softly on a tolling harp earlier in the movement - is a liberating moment under Gatti, not heavy or oppressive as it can sometimes sound.

Ruth Ziesak's warmth in the fourth movement is an asset, even at the extremes of tempi her conductor maintains in the course of her contribution, bells jangling in the quick interludes. Maybe a smaller, more childlike, voice is needed here, but there are very few who can deliver this. Why no one has ever yet thought of using a girl chorister in this movement, I have no idea. I was especially pleased to hear Gatti observing no pause of any kind between this and the preceding movement. It might seem a small point, but on such small points a conductor's general attitude can sometimes be judged. There is no doubt this decision knits the last movement much more into the structure of the whole since it can sometimes sound, especially to a newcomer, as if it has been tacked on as an afterthought whereas we know the reverse was the case. Mahler composed this movement first, originally as finale to the Third Symphony, and the other three movements gain when played as if they lead up to it as confirmation that what the words being sung describe - the special qualities of a child's view of what follows death - should be the paramount image taken away from this symphony.

Couplings in recordings of this work are rare, so on a full-priced release it's good to find four of Mahler's early songs in the clever orchestrations by Colin and David Matthews. They are more self-effacing than Luciano Berio, for example, who has also had a go at orchestrating them in the past. Much more than make-weights, "Nich widersehen !" is especially impressive with a familiar Mahlerian funeral tread instilling itself into the mind, and "Ablosung im Sommer !" recalling the Third Symphony third movement where it later re-appeared in orchestral guise.

The playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is exemplary in all departments. There are some really spiky woodwinds that are well caught by the spacious, but still sharp, sound. Especially in the fourth movement of the symphony where Gatti doesn't forget the animals depicted in the accompaniment.

An enjoyable disc with new things to say, even in such well-trodden paths as these.


Tony Duggan

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Tony Duggan

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