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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4: (Bedachtig [16.39]; In gemachlicher Bewegung [9.41]; Ruhevoll [22.02]; Sehr behaglich [9.15])
Judith Blegen (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
RCA RED SEAL 8287659413 2 [57.51]

Whilst I would disagree with the view later espoused that the Fourth is Mahler’s most approachable symphony, it is still a work of great beauty and power, and Levine does his best to convey this. The first movement is taken at a beautifully steady pace, getting the disc off to a good start. The strings are fairly vibrant and the playing from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is exemplary. However, I felt that the sound comes over as slightly too harsh and strident, almost sparse, lacking warmth and not particularly full, lush or rich. This harsh and rough tone – almost coarse in places - runs though the entire symphony (and seems to increase through the first movement). It is exaggerated further by the slightly cold recorded sound. This effect may be what some listeners want – a less smooth and luscious Mahler, with more grit and severity, but it is not a style that particularly appeals to me. I must admit to having been slightly put off by this. There is also an amount of background notice (chairs creaking and so on) that was rather intrusive and detracted from the pleasure of listening. I found the disc a bit of a mixture in general.

Levine captures a wonderful sense of jubilation in places. He creates a good sense of space and his steady and unrushed tempi are perfect. On the other hand, the solo violin at the start of the second movement (tuned higher than normal to represent the instrument of death) was too strident and grating, bordering on being overly brutal. I felt that the symphony, as a whole, lacked tenderness. The third movement opens with gorgeously dark, dreamy tones but then this charming reverie, so delightfully created, is rudely shattered two minutes in by the high sustained violins violently threatening to slip rather garishly out of tune. Judith Blegen is the soloist in the fourth movement, and whilst her voice suits this type of music extremely well, I felt that her rendition of Das Himmlische Leben is too worldly-wise and lacking in wide-eyed innocence. This vision of heaven is, after all, being seen through the eyes of a child. Although better, for example, than Amanda Roocroft (on the Rattle/CBSO recording), who comes across as slightly starched, Blegen cannot rival Kathleen Battle on Maazel’s Sony Classics recording.

A slightly hard-headed rendition of the Fourth, then – not particularly slushy, romantic or lyrical; this is a good solid all-rounder. Levine does not over-indulge in sentimentality or emotion, but I would personally go for a version with more poetry and passion. This is one for those who like their Mahler crisp, slightly bleak, and austere. If you prefer a more luxuriant and richer performance, try a boisterous Britten and the LSO with Anna Reynolds, recorded in 1961 (on the BBC label), a flawless Karajan with the Berlin Phil on Deutsche Grammophon, or a leisurely Klemperer (with Schwarzkopf) on Columbia/EMI Classics. An excellent budget price recording that I would also recommend is Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestras on Naxos.

Em Marshall

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