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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1900)
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
rec. 2014, NedPhO-Koepel, The Netherlands
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (German and English)
PENTATONE PTC5186487 SACD [57:53]

Even after the double centenary of 2010-2011 the flood of Mahler recordings shows no sign of abating. I’m not complaining, mind, but experience suggests most of these newcomers will be serviceable rather than outstanding. As far as the Fourth is concerned fairly recent exceptions include IvŠn Fischer’s two recordings, one with his Budapest Festival Orchestra (review), the other with the Concertgebouw (review). Both have a life-renewing radiance and lightness of touch that’s most refreshing. Not only that, Fischer’s soprano Miah Persson – a seasoned Mahlerian – is near ideal in the child-heaven finale. Then there are Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne accounts, one of which I reviewed on DVD in 2011. As for Markus Stenz’s Fourth – like much of his recently completed Oehms cycle – it's nowhere near the best available.

That’s before we even consider the classic Mahler Fourths. Of those the Otto Klemperer version with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – reissued as part of a superbly re-mastered Warner/EMI box – has proved one of the most durable. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s CBS/Sony Fourth is still much revered, but even a high-res HDTT re-master can’t disguise the age and general fierceness of this 1960s recording. Marc Albrecht, chief conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic, will be hard-pressed to equal, let alone surpass, any of the versions listed here. Thus far he’s only recorded Das Lied von der Erde (Pentatone PTC5186502), a reading that I found rather wayward and not terribly communicative. In short, it doesn’t begin to challenge the best in the bulging catalogue.

Alas, the first movement of his Mahler Fourth doesn’t fill me with confidence. There’s a distance to both the reading and the recording that isn’t ideal in music that thrives on point and sparkle. Albrecht’s deliberately articulated phrases and some unexpected sonorities took me by surprise too. The former work against a seamless flow of musical ideas and the latter are just plain odd. Most disfiguring, though, is the first big tutti, which is unforgivably crude and overbearing. The recorded balance is partly to blame, but then Albrecht doesn’t scale this performance at all well either.

The second movement, with its scordatura violin part, is no better. Mahler's Hein-inspired grotesqueries are laid on thick and Albrecht almost brings the music to a halt at times. There’s no real spookiness or spontaneity here; instead we get a ponderous, rather gilded response to Mahler’s very precise and colourful writing. Most unsettling, though, is the sense that the dynamics of this recording – not to mention the degree of musical contrast – is constrained in a way that seems almost oppressive. In any event that’s absolutely not what one wants to hear in this most transparent of scores.

Although death is woven into the very fabric of this symphony - especially in the third movement - most conductors maintain a lightness of touch here that prevents this section from sounding too dirge-like. Unfortunately Albrecht isn't one of them, and what should be music of hushed intensity comes across as leaden and lugubrious. Also, as I feared, that liberating tutti is both blatant and disproportionate. The close, hard-struck timps are particularly unpleasant. After that tortuous cortŤge the lovely, light-filled Wunderhorn finale sounds quite bizarre. The distantly placed soprano Elizabeth Watts is pleasing enough, but there’s little of the wide-eyed wonder or fine vocal shading that Persson and others bring to the piece.

There’s so much that doesn’t work here, both in terms of performance and sonics, that trying to find positives is all but impossible. Indeed, after listening to this download several times I gave up looking. I’m particularly disappointed by Polyhymnia’s recording, especially as their recent Shostakovich Leningrad with Paavo Jšrvi and the Russian National Orchestra is firmly in the demonstration class (review); their work for RCO Live tends to be first-rate as well. As I hinted earlier we really don't need all these new Mahler recordings, as most are very ordinary - or worse. Three guesses where this one belongs.

A dreary, life-sapping Fourth. Even the sound is lacklustre.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei