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Gustav MAHLER (1860 - 1911)
Symphony #4 in G (1900) [53.32]
Juliane Banse (soprano)
William Preucil (violin solo).
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez.
Recorded in the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, April 1998
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français.
CD tracks 2.0 stereo. SACD tracks 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound.
Hybrid SACD also playable on CD players.

DG 474 991-2 [53.32]

Comparison Recordings

Bruno Walter, Desi Halban, [ADD] Sony 515301-2
Lorin Maazel, Kathleen Battle, VPO Sony MDK 44908
Leonard Bernstein, Reri Grist, NYPO [ADD] Sony SMK 60733
Fritz Reiner, Lisa Della Casa, CSO [ADD] RCA/BMG 5722-2-RC
Maurice Abravanel, Netania Davrath, USO [ADD] Vanguard OVC 4007
Michael Tilson-Thomas, Laura Claycomb, SFSO SACD SFS 821936-0004-2

Who ever would have thought that Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible of dodecaphonic composers, would grow up to be a great conductor of the romantic repertoire? I became a believer the night I heard him conduct the Schumann Rhenish Symphony with the LAPO and in fact have yet to hear a performance by anyone of that work as good as I heard that night. He spun out the middle chorale movement into long, high corridors of sensual sound. But his Mahler has been controversial from the first note; people generally either love it or hate it with little said in between.

A performance of the Fourth Symphony can stand or fall on the voice of the soprano. Mahler had in mind a young, innocent sounding voice, and he supposedly was disappointed that a child could not sing it. The first recording with Bruno Walter and Desi Halban was the only one available for nearly 15 years and the first one I got to know. She seemed to me, as I recall, to have a fine voice for the part, but one reviewer referred to her as "deficient", and that opinion must have prevailed; for, those recordings by Walter still in print are with such lights as Schwarzkopf, Seefried, and Stader. A good Pamina, as were these sopranos, should be able to sing this part very well, but I have not been able to obtain copies for comparison.

Bernsteinís soprano, Reri Grist, has a reedy, agile voice, verging on stridency, which is heard clearly through the orchestral textures. Coupled with Bernsteinís tiresomely exaggerated phrasing and consistent overstatement of every orchestral effect this recording is guaranteed to give you a headache and me a cramp in my abdominal muscles within minutes ó unless you particularly prefer Bernsteinís approach, in which case you will like this version over all others and you can skip to the next review. I canít really explain why I so immediately and favourably respond to the distortions used by Leopold Stokowski and react so negatively to those used by Bernstein; it must be simply a matter of personality type. I truly admire many of Bernsteinís recordings of classical and modern music.

Maazelís soprano Kathleen Battle has a beautiful, angelically pure voice. It is difficult to forget all the bad press she has received over the years, and easy to interpret that publicity so as to hear conceit and arrogance in her voice, but I donít think any of that is really there. I think she sings beautifully, if perhaps just a little too perfectly, maybe verging on a preciousness which does not convey innocence. Maazel is on his good behaviour and gives a good, straightforward, well recorded reading of the score. Until recently this version could be recommended over all others with little controversy.

Fritz Reinerís timing is only about a minute longer than Boulez, and that was considered a fast performance in its day. This was my preferred version for many years and is a very dramatic, intense, recording and the dynamic range is exceptional, stretching the bounds of the recording medium with some slight distortion on loud passages. His soprano Lisa Della Casa sings with intelligence and animation but has a little difficulty with pitch in the unaccompanied phrases.

Tilson-Thomasís recording, praised for good SACD recording, but criticised for erratic and slow tempi, has not made many short-lists. No one has overly praised the soloist. I have not had the chance to hear it through myself on my SACD set-up.

Missing from our list is a recording by Mahlerís friend and champion Hermann Scherchen. He didnít care for this work, performed it rarely and never recorded it. We are left with the Bruno Walter versions to give us our only entrée to the intimate world of Mahlerís own preferences.

Silverline have promised us to release the widely praised Abravanel recording on a DVD-Audio soon. Netania Davrath has a pretty, elegant voice, perhaps, like Kathleen Battle, almost too pretty. My recollection of the Abravanel recording is that the voice is too far forward, but I do not have a copy at hand for direct comparison. I believe that recording was originally a two channel master.

This Boulez recording has a certain French elegance to it, and this is the only one of Mahlerís symphonies where that would be any kind of advantage. This is now my preferred version of this work. I first heard it as a CD, and then on this SACD pressing; the clarity and orchestral detail are superb, the dynamic range perhaps slightly reduced. This is the only SACD I have seen where they actually give the resolution: 44.1/24bit, and it shows. A DVD-audio would give us better than that, at least 48/24 or 96/24. If I were to find a flaw in this performance, I would say that frequently the conductor is just a little too quick on the pick-up. I think this is one of the fastest Mahler Fourths on disk today, however there is no sense of being rushed, it is just that when the phrase reaches a point of repose calling for a momentary pause, a relaxation of tension, the resumption of forward motion feels slightly abrupt. It is the sort of thing that could have been done by the producer and editor after the recording was in the can, although I donít think they would dare tamper in this manner with the work of a conductor of Boulezís stature.

The soprano, Juliane Banse, is fine, singing with care, intelligence, and grace, but she is not spectacular. The ideal voice for this part ó bright, naive, childlike ó remains an unfulfilled quest.

Paul Shoemaker

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