I've been listening a lot recently to Philip Herreweghe's Mahler
4 performed on period instruments. His is a lean account, with
little vibrato and no more tempo fluctuations than are strictly
necessary. Manfred Honeck's interpretation of the work is at
the opposite end of the spectrum, and the contrast between the
two recordings is astonishing. Herreweghe demonstrates that
the music doesn't need much help from the podium in order to
produce drama and profound emotion. Honeck, in contrast, shows
that continuous intervention by the conductor can also be musically
justified. And the results certainly are powerful and immediate.
But it can also feel laboured, as if every detail of the score
has to be pedantically spelled out with some heightened articulation
or localised rubato. Well, the score doesn't need any of that,
although some listeners may appreciate the help Honeck offers
in getting to grips with what is, in fairness, a radical work.
The first movement gets off to a brisk start. By speeding up
the sleigh-bells on the first page, Honeck is able to glide
over that awkward tempo transition in the fourth bar. From then
on the first movement is a roller-coaster, with every opportunity
for dramatic contrast exploited to the full. The orchestra are
on top form throughout, with glistening strings, distinctive
woodwind solos, and that warm yet penetrating sound from the
brass that you only hear from the top American orchestras. The
ensemble of the orchestra is also impressive, especially given
the many radical tempo shifts that Honeck affects.
Contrast is again the key feature of the second movement, with
some excellent solos from the leader, the horn and the woodwinds
interspersing tuttis that regularly risk going over the top.
Honeck knows how to maintain control of the orchestra, so the
dangers are always illusory. There is a wonderful sense of serenity
at the start of the third movement, which is taken surprisingly
slowly. But this too soon gives way to yet more intense drama.
By about half way through the third movement, it becomes apparent
that Honeck is presenting the Fourth Symphony as if it was of
the same scale as Mahler's other symphonic works. It is hard
to say whether that is an arrogant or an insightful approach.
It certainly forces the listener to address their preconceived
ideas about how the Fourth is different. And most importantly,
it all adds up to a coherent and genuinely originally interpretation.
The volume drops in the fourth movement as the orchestra recedes
to an accompanying role to the soprano Sunhae Im. In any other
context, I'd say that Sunhae's vocal style is far too florid
and operatic for this music, but her performance is exactly
in accord with the approach that Honeck has been taking in the
previous movements, expressive and direct, if not precisely
The SACD audio quality is up to Exton's usual impressive standards.
In fact, the company is fast becoming the market leader in terms
of the definition and vibrancy that they can produce from live
orchestral recordings. You need an orchestra that is up to the
job to make this sort of recording project worthwhile, and a
very significant factor in its success is the fact that every
section of the Pittsburgh Symphony plays to an exceptional standard.
I've just one grumble, the bass, impressive as it is, doesn't
sound very natural. The Exton producers have clearly gone to
great lengths to create the soundscape they are looking for,
but in other recordings they manage to disguise their post-production
balancing behind a veneer of apparently natural sound. The sheer
quantity of bass here, and I'm thinking particularly of the
bass drum, is spectacular but hardly realistic. Like the performance
itself, the only problem with the recording is a lack of subtlety,
and of all the symphonies in Mahler's catalogue, the Fourth
is where you are going to feel that the most.