Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892, 1899-1900; revised 1910)
I. Bedächtig, nicht eilen [16:51]
II. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast [9:26]
III. Ruhevolle, poco adagio [21:51]
IV. Sehr behaglich [8:32]
Miah Persson (soprano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary, September 2008
Text and translation of the last movement included CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 26109
I have heard a large number of recordings of this symphony over
the years and was fortunate to attend one of Leonard Bernstein’s
concerts with the New York Philharmonic with Jeannette Zarou
as soprano soloist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
in September 1967. Bernstein’s first recording with Reri
Grist was my introduction to the symphony. From that time on
this work has been one of my favorites. In addition to that
recording, I have greatly admired those of George Szell with
Judith Raskin, Jascha Horenstein with Margaret Price, and Lorin
Maazel with Kathleen Battle, among others. I refer the reader
to Tony Duggan’s MusicWeb International survey of this
symphony for his recommendations among the many alternatives.
Having listened to this new recording by Iván Fischer
several times on different systems, but unfortunately on only
two channels, I would without hesitation place it at the very
top of the list. It is that good! This is largely because it
sounds so natural. Fischer has developed his orchestra into
a world-class ensemble with rich but luminous strings and wonderful
winds. The recording balances everything with perfection and
nothing sounds in the least bit contrived, but the symphony
comes up fresh minted - an over-used phrase, but pertinent here.
Fischer convinces as a real Mahlerian, with a judicious but
very natural employment of rubato. It is interesting that while
he seems so well suited to Mahler, his recording of Brahms First
Symphony that I also reviewed for this website, falls short
for that very reason. There the rubato feels imposed, applied
from the outside, while here it is part and parcel of the work.
He obviously has a greater affinity for Mahler than for Brahms.
He is also meticulous when it comes to following the score and
observing the dynamics.
My reference recording of this symphony on CD has been until
now Lorin Maazel’s and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Kathleen
Battle singing the “Das himmlische Leben” song of
the last movement on Sony, for its combination of radiant performance
and warm, present sound. Now in direct comparison with the present
disc, I find Maazel just a bit too mannered and Battle’s
child-like voice rather affected-especially the stanza beginning
with “Kein musik ist ja nicht auf Erden.” It is
interesting that Maazel is slower in all four movements, though
barely so in the second: Maazel’s timings are: I- 18:03,
II- 9:28, III- 22:31, IV- 10:41 (see the timings for Fischer
above). The biggest difference is in the finale, which seems
very slow, though Szell took a similar tempo in his recording.
The one movement where Maazel really scores, however, is the
second movement scherzo, which he characterizes extremely
well by bringing out the darker elements in the music. Perhaps
Fischer is smoother and somewhat less characterful in comparison,
but still detailed and idiomatic. In the other movements he
is unbeatable. The playing of his Budapest orchestra is above
reproach with particularly beautiful winds, especially the oboe
and horn parts. Check out the oboe, for example, about five
minutes into the third movement. The whole movement is gorgeous,
with especial attention paid to the dynamics. Then, the finale
is best of all. Miah Persson captures the innocence of the child
without sounding childish or too sweet, just very natural and
joyful. Listening to Raskin for Szell or Price for Horenstein
here is enlightening. Both sound too mature, if not matronly,
though good in their own ways. Then there is the disaster of
Bernstein using an actual boy for his solo in his later version
with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It might have been a good
idea in theory, but it just doesn’t work. Mahler intended
the song to be sung by a female soprano with a child-like voice.
Too bad, because otherwise Bernstein’s performance has
much to recommend it. Reri Grist was so much better in the earlier
performance, but Bernstein’s interpretation showed greater
depth in the later one.
The bottom line is that this new version of Mahler’s Fourth
is now the one to beat. I am looking forward to hearing the
recording in surround sound. In the meantime, look no further
for your Mahler 4.
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