Recording of the Month

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900)
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, 16 February 2006, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London. DDD
German text and English translation included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD219 [56:43]

Though he was widely admired for his conducting of the music of many composers, including Beethoven, Handel, Janácek and Mozart, Sir Charles Mackerras was not particularly associated with the music of Gustav Mahler. Yet, typically, such Mahler pieces as he did conduct, he did very well, his interpretations carefully thought out and prepared. Some years back he made a studio recording of the Fifth symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which was very positively received. I also picked up, by chance, an issue of the BBC Music Magazine in 2005, which included a fine 2002 concert performance of the Sixth with the BBC Philharmonic. Now Signum have used their relationship with the Philharmonia to bring us this live account of the Fourth.

The same artists gave another account of the work, also in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a few days before the performance captured here and I see that in his review of that earlier concert for MusicWeb International Jim Pritchard expressed some reservations, both as to aspects of the interpretation and also about the wisdom of performing even this relatively lightly-scored Mahler symphony in an acoustic as modest as that of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I must say that when I received this disc for review my eyebrows rose slightly when I noticed the venue in which the performance had been given: would the acoustic prove too confining? In the event I was pleasantly surprised. The sound is a bit close, though not worryingly so, and I suspect that the microphones report the performance in a more comfortable way than may have been the case for listeners in the hall. As to the interpretation itself, perhaps it had settled a bit more by the time that this present performance took place for I found Mackerras’s way with the score more convincing and naturally flowing than Jim did.

One aspect of Jim’s review caught my eye in particular. I think he makes an excellent point when he writes perceptively that “Mackerras's experience of Janácek could only have coloured his depiction of Bohemia as envisioned by Mahler to good effect.” This is a performance that brings out the open air, rustic aspect of the score, especially in the first two movements, and which does so in a most engaging way.

Mackerras presents the first movement brightly; his is a predominantly genial reading. The playing is sprightly and to my ears Mahler’s many – and tricky – tempo changes are negotiated easily and convincingly. The author of the booklet note suggests that the symphony ‘breathes much the same air as Haydn and Mozart’ and I find that’s especially true of the first movement in this reading. Mackerras brings out the good humour and naïve innocence in the music in a reading of open-air freshness. That’s not to say, however, that the quirky side of the music is played down: for example, the wind playing is suitably characterful – try the pungent clarinet tone at around 7:55. The nostalgic winding down as the movement draws to a close (around 14:00) is successfully negotiated and Mackerras is daringly slow in the “upbeat” to the brief, fast coda.

In II the orchestra’s leader, James Clark, and the woodwind principals all excel, treating us to some acutely pointed solo work. Just as much as in the previous movement the feel of the Czech outdoors really comes across. There’s often a nicely acerbic touch to the playing and Mackerras and his musicians clearly relish the sardonic, rustic flavour of Mahler’s music. Here, as throughout the symphony, the conductor observes copious amounts of detail in the score without ever highlighting anything in an unnatural way.

The Philharmonia strings are wonderful in the opening minutes of III. The slides are placed in an unforced way throughout the movement to bring just the right expressive touch. As the movement unfolds the listener is aware that the playing has no little distinction. Mackerras paces the music to perfection. After a magically hushed preparation the great sunburst climax (18:38) is very satisfying. The timpanist is appropriately emphatic and very incisive.

The rapt slow movement gives way effortlessly to the delightful finale. Here the soprano is Sarah Fox. I’ve previously encountered her in two very different contexts: in Kenneth Leighton’s Second Symphony (review), and in a performance of Elijah at the 2009 Three Choirs Festival (review). She impressed me on both those occasions and here she makes a favourable impression once again. The role is demanding for the soprano because the music – and the text – demands a light innocence in the voice. On the other hand we don’t want to hear a pale, boyish tone that’s too thin. Miss Fox strikes a successful balance between lightness and warmth, I think. Mackerras, always a singer’s conductor, gives his accomplished soloist fine support. The final, calm stanza of the poem is beautifully poised.

Those for whom such matters are an issue should note that there is applause at the end of the piece but, happily, it’s delayed for several seconds and doesn’t destroy the moment, I believe.

This is a very fine Mahler Fourth and a treasurable example of the work of a great conductor in repertoire with which he was not automatically associated. The catalogue is bursting with recordings of this symphony but this most enjoyable and thoroughly musical reading can safely be ranked among the best.

John Quinn

This is a very fine Mahler Fourth and a treasurable example of the work of a great conductor in repertoire with which he was not automatically associated.