Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no.4 in G major [52:02] (1), Songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”: Urlicht [4:59] (2), Trost im Unglück [2:11] (3), Lied des verfolgten im Turm [3:51] (3), Lob des hohen Verstandes [2:21] (3), Rheinlegendchen [3:16] (2), Revelge [6:43] (3)
Margaret Ritchie (soprano) (1), Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum (1), Lorna Sydney (mezzo, 2), Alfred Poell (baritone, 3), Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Felix Prohaska (2, 3)
rec. April-May 1952, (1), Brahms Saal, Vienna 1950 (2, 3)
Song texts not included
MAGDALEN METCD 8004 [75:23]
The history of Mahler 4 on record is intimately bound up with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Under Van Beinum’s long-serving predecessor, Willem Mengelberg, they set the symphony down in 1939. This was not quite the first version – the symphony had been recorded in Japan – but it was the one that established the work in the public eye. Mengelberg was known as an admirer, disciple and friend of Mahler; also as the ultimate in personalized interpretation and “changements”. Van Beinum served a considerable apprenticeship as Mengelberg’s second-in-command before taking full charge after the war. Yet he was the antithesis of Mengelberg, a faithful servant of the score, unglamorous but far from dry or uninspired.
This Mahler 4 was recorded when memories of Mengelberg were still vivid among many players. The curious thing is that the typical string portamenti, of which Mengelberg was a supreme master, remain substantially in place. They are executed so finely that one cannot feel Van Beinum has tried to discourage them. What would be really fascinating would be if somebody could find a tape of him performing the same work as a guest conductor, maybe in London where orchestras had long abandoned portamenti as a habit and would have provided them only if Van Beinum had specifically asked for them and worked at them. Would he have done this, I wonder?
When I say this is curious, I mean that it is odd to hear so much well-controlled sliding in the context of a performance that otherwise treats the score with Mozartian purity. The result is that the symphony is often made to resemble high-class light music that periodically goes off the rails. Or, at any rate, a slightly furrow-browed cousin of Elgar’s “Wand of Youth” – pieces which Van Beinum interpreted with great insight. The elegance of Van Beinum’s opening is magical but as the movement develops there seems a refusal to allow the music its more uncomfortable, even brutal, aspects. Or its more emotional ones – the cello theme is kept “clean” in spite of the warmly coloured playing. I found myself listening with admiration but not very much involvement.
Another symptomatic aspect is the treatment of the treading bass at the beginning of the slow movement. In Van Beinum’s hands it provides a sort of Schubertian perpetuum mobile. Go to Bruno Walter, faster overall in this movement, and the ostinato bass notes actually cause the music to stick at times. Rather like a boat gently drifting downstream and sometimes dragging its keel on the bottom. This combination of movement with dragging is the essence of Mahler interpretation, the common feature between the otherwise very different conductors who have excelled at his music. On the basis of this highly proficient performance I am not sure Van Beinum belongs in that category.
Margaret Ritchie’s contribution to the finale has drawn a fair amount of criticism over the years. There are some ungainly sounds at the beginning and at times she sounds like a pantomime witch. An odd view of the “heavenly life”. On the other hand, having complained that the tendency of the seemingly innocent music to break into violence has been elegantly swept aside thus far, I must say that Ritchie is not afraid of ugliness in the first two verses, settling into something more heavenly for the concluding one. The orchestra responds to her interpretation and in truth I found this movement the most interestingly performed of the four.
The recording is very clear in the upper register, less well-defined in the lower. This is fairly typical of Decca’s work in the early days of LP. The transfer is truthful, retaining a certain bass rumble, which you quickly forget even on headphones. There is no attempt to add extra brilliance at the expense of the characteristic Concertgebouw warmth. In short, it is as though you had the original LXT issue and high class equipment to hear it on.
The battle-lines were drawn early over this recording. Comparing it with Bruno Walter’s New York version – originally on 78s – “The Record Guide” by Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shaw-Taylor (1955) remarked: “The two LP issues create a dilemma, less for the keen Mahlerite, who is unlikely to hesitate, than for the amateur of first-class recording. Van Beinum secures a good, straightforward performance and, considering the complexity of the score, the recording is a triumphant success. But one only has to listen to the opening of the symphony in the Columbia edition to become aware how much more idiomatic, how much gentler and more lovingly phrased, is Walter’s rendering.” In reality, Walter’s opening is so very much slower that you would need to listen to several minutes of each just to get the hang of what the respective conductors are doing. Granted that, I think the judgment still stands. And I would add that the more abrasive elements register better with Walter too, though they may have been explored even more scarily since.
The Vanguard recording of 13 of Mahler’s “Knaben Wunderhorn” settings was issued in the UK by Nixa on 2 LPs. Six were sung by Alfred Poell, the remainder by the Australian mezzo-soprano Lorna Sydney. Since we are given just six here, it is maybe a pity that Magdalen did not simply concentrate on Poell. A Vienna State Opera regular, he has an honoured place in some of the most famous opera sets ever made, in particular as Count Almaviva in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Faninal in “Der Rosenkavalier”, both conducted by Erich Kleiber (Decca). His vivid characterization and rich tones are remarkably well caught by the 61-year-old recording. Once again it is difficult not to agree with “The Record Guide”, which found him “little short of superb”. In the case of Sydney, the excellent presence of the recording only emphasizes her lack of vocal lustre in the lower register and unimaginative, literal phrasing. “The Record Guide” noted that her “contributions are on a much lower level” and maybe I should have left it at that too. Back in the early 1950s the authors could nevertheless feel that “her singing, inadequate as it is, cannot prevent the issue of these records from being a most exciting event”. Little did Messrs. Sackville-West and Shaw-Taylor imagine the choice that would face the listener as the 21st century entered its second decade!
Felix Prohaska is a straightforward Mahlerian, but one who recognizes the pungency and bite of Mahler’s orchestral colours better than Van Beinum. There is a feeling of shared Viennese tradition, as opposed to the sensation that Van Beinum is coming to compromises with an orchestra trained to play Mahler in another way. All this adds positively to our appreciation of Poell’s performances and the orchestral sound, if backward, still registers well. Prohaska can also be enjoyed in the Sydney songs, but it’s not as if other conductors haven’t conducted the music well since, and with better soloists.
A lot of companies offering LP transfers limit their documentation to a track list and dates. So it’s worth pointing out that Magdalen, though they don’t provide sung texts and translations – you can find these on Internet quite easily – do give full notes on the music and the performers.
To return to my original point. Van Beinum’s Mahler 4 takes its place in the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s history. As well as expected versions by his successors Haitink and Chailly, this orchestra also appeared on the first Solti and the last Bernstein versions. This in itself will provide Mahlerians with ample reason to study it.
Christopher Howell
Van Beinum’s Mahler 4 takes its place in the Concertgebouw orchestra’s history.