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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.4 in G (1892-1900) [53.39]
Lisa Della Casa (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Recorded in 1958
RCA RED SEAL 82876 67901 2 SACD [53.39]

For an example of superlative recording and immaculate orchestral playing you could do an awful lot worse than turn to this 1958 recording.

However for an example of penetrating Mahler conducting you could do an awful lot better. There’s something Reiner says in his part of the booklet notes that perhaps gives an inkling as to why this may be so. It’s not simply that he never heard Mahler conduct, as did some of his slightly older contemporaries, or that he came rather later to his music than others. That may be important or it may not. But when speaking of Strauss, whom Reiner of course knew well, he describes him as the extrovert master of concentration and Mahler as the introvert, pregnant with premonitions and misgivings. Reiner, to be fair, was not a misgivings conductor, he was built in Strauss’s mould, in conductorial terms a route that derived from Nikisch - intense concentration, very small beat, no extraneous gesture. His Strauss was glorious but his Mahler circumscribed by his tastes and personality.

So, to be sure, this is a reading of great virtuoso competence; bass counter-themes in the first movement are perfectly weighted – and perfectly judged. The balancing of the string choirs is meticulous and the winds have been well drilled. Their solos are characterful, the first flute especially so, the percussion is marvellously clear, the strings lissom without effusion, without over much expressive gesture; certainly without any special emotional pleading. There’s a delicious rhythmic lilt enshrined in the second movement and once more superfine string playing. There’s a certain objective distance in the slow movement – not, it has to be said, detachment, but a sense of remove. He has Lisa Della Casa as an impressive soloist though she’s not one to challenge the leading exponents in this repertoire.

Ultimately the great gift of his clarity sometimes obscures ambiguity and duality in Reiner’s Mahler and this is, I think, a classic case of that weakness. That and an ambivalence that he so plainly harboured for a work he considered, even as he was recording it, "uneven." Even without his written comments one could judge from the performance that he sought to align its unevenness, to smooth out its latent diablerie, that, in the end, maybe inevitably, he failed to find what he defined as the symphony’s searching power.

Jonathan Woolf



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