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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 (1901) [61:00]
Symphony No. 5 (1901/2) [76:08]
Symphony No. 6 (1904) [89:09]
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. Royal Festival Hall, 2011
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD361 [4 CDs: 61:00 + 76:08 + 25:58 + 63:11]

Listening to these concert performances straight through, in chronological order, produces a depressing "diminuendo effect". To make sure this wasn't just aural fatigue, or perhaps Mahler fatigue, on my part, I listened to the set in reverse order: it didn't change my impressions of the respective performances.

Maazel has actually brought the Fourth Symphony into the studio twice before, with mixed success. His Berlin Radio account (last seen on FNAC) was disjointed, while his more cohesive and spacious Vienna Philharmonic remake (Sony) was temperamentally cool. The new one improves on those predecessors in its perceptive details. The first movement, launched at a crisp, no-nonsense pace, offers numerous instances of warm, tender phrasing; clean textural contrasts and balances; and delicate, evocative solos — the horn at 16:37 seems to emerge from the distance. It also takes in some underpowered accents and moments of iffy or insecure ensemble, though Maazel at least avoids the now-customary "train wreck" between the clarinets and the first violins in the third measure. There are also some overdone tenutos of a kind which will bedevil all three performances here.

The eerie scherzo maintains a dance-like lilt, while the trios sing cheerfully — the move to D major in the second, at 6:41, brings a particular outpouring of warmth. On the other hand, Maazel sabotages the Adagio almost before it starts by his regular, unmarked tenutos in the opening paragraph. The movement improves as it proceeds, and the last five minutes are the best. The terraced accelerations into the climax, beginning at 14:40, are nicely gauged; when, after an expectant hush, the heavens open at 19:20, you can actually hear the strings' undulating rhythm; and the high violins in the coda are ethereal. The finale goes with an easy swing and more unmarked ritards and tenutos, which Maazel at least handles gracefully. Sarah Fox sings vibrantly, though an invasive flutter occasionally flattens her pitch, and the low end mostly disappears.

The best part of Maazel's Fifth is the buoyant Scherzo. The first subject is trim and lilting, even when the resonant basses take it up; the second group, at 2:28, is poised and relaxed. I appreciated the conductor's firm yet flexible grip on the episode at 5:24 — it's less a matter of fits and starts than usual and the way the more conflicted tuttis pick up tonal weight without losing momentum. The intricate play of instrumental strands and colours is clear, though woodwinds sometimes register above the marked dynamics. In the coda, however, Maazel starts the snare drum at 17:30 much slower than the indicated Tempo I subito, and then picks up markedly for the pił mosso outburst a few bars later — a cheap effect in an otherwise perceptive reading.

The surrounding movements come off variably. The opening Funeral March impresses with clear, brilliant tuttis and some nice individual touches: the "moment of stillness" preceding the second subject is effective; a slight, unmarked speedup at 11:05 underlines the passage's mournful quality. In the main theme, however, the regular, unmarked tenutos on the pickups quickly become tiresome. Maazel moves into the second movement without pause, the better to relate it to the first, and the performance is both dramatic and cohesive. The controlled turbulence at the start is balanced by the flowing, not dragged, Bedeutend langsamer at 1:28. The relaxation into 10:37, while unnecessary (Nicht eilen - "Don't rush") is actually graceful.

The Adagietto is light and clear — and, at 11:16, not unduly slow — but the sonority lacks body in the middle voices. The last part of the recapitulation is wistful, and, for once, the bass suspension in the final cadence registers properly. The Finale is crisp, vigorous, and enthusiastic, with real grace in the Grazioso flashbacks. Its moments of confident insight — the anticipatory hush at the pianopianissimo at 5:19, to name one — are offset by others that feel becalmed or insecure, and bits of inflated rhetoric.

Whatever the respective merits of the performances, these two symphonies have, at least, been vividly and colourfully recorded, with a nice sense of depth around the brass chords. Unfortunately, in the Sixth, the engineering goes drastically wrong. String- and woodwind- dominated textures sound comparatively muffled and devoid of overtones. A volume boost provides some of the missing presence, but the sonority remains unduly contained and "hemmed-in", in a way that flattens dynamic contrasts and deprives the fortes of their power. Only the entries of the heavy brass bring brightness and impact to the proceedings. It seems unlikely that the engineers for these sessions would have forgotten where to place the microphones, but the alternative — that the orchestra's sound somehow changed for the worse at these particular concerts — seems even less likely.

Still, better sound wouldn't have improved the performance. In the first movement, some passages are astutely organized, others merely willful. The transition to the "Alma" theme, for example, is carefully balanced, with the woodwind chorale nicely shaped; then Maazel lengthens the three pickups to the actual theme, flagrantly violating the composer's instruction (A tempo subito). Here and at several points in the development, such doings briefly produce uncertain ensemble.

The simpler middle movements, with the Scherzo played second, fare better, although the conductor beats deadpan through most of the Andante's magical harmonic shifts. The Finale is swings and roundabouts. Some of the handoffs between instruments are seamless, while others don't work. Here and there, unexpected details enrich the texture; elsewhere, other, familiar ones are obscured. Even the coda misfires: Maazel sets it up well with an optimistic breadth at 28:41 and a sense of peaceful resolution at 29:11, but the final trombone chorale, lacking continuity in the actual tone, starts to feel endless.

Although I'd greatly respected Maazel as a stick technician, I didn't always take to his actual performances and recordings. This installment of his newer cycle does nothing to change that opinion.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist







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