Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1901) [59:50]
Maria Ewing (soprano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 1986, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Subtitles: English, French, German
Region code: Worldwide. Video: 1080i 4:3; Sound: PCM Stereo (Blu-ray)
Video 4:3 Audio PCM Stereo (DVD)
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 109108/Blu-ray 109109 [62:00]
Review of the Blu-ray version
Around the time that I was studying this recording of Mahlerís Fourth for the purpose of reviewing it I read a review of a live performance in London by my Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard. This was by the LSO led by the now 86-year-old Bernard Haitink. I was struck by the fact that for Jim the key attribute of Haitinkís direction of the score in 2015 was the serenity that he brought to the music. As he put it, ďHaitink brought an overwhelming sense of serenity to the music and where others might find more anxiety and tension, everything was tranquil and nostalgic.Ē A rather different picture of the score emerges from this Amsterdam performance, given some 29 years ago; maddeningly, Arthaus are very vague about the exact date.

Haitink would have been about 57 years old when this performance was given and he appears very sprightly, not least when he negotiates the long descent from the conductorís entrance door in the Concertgebouw down to the podium. Thereís plenty of energy in his conducting and his interpretation strikes a nice balance between the rustic charm of much of the music and the frequent darker undertones. I like very much the way the first movement flows in his hands; thereís a pleasing open-air feel to the music. From the outset, and generally, Haitinkís empathy with Mahlerís music and in particular his natural way with rubato is much in evidence. The second movement is lively, the playing pithy and sharply articulated. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays expertly throughout but in this movement especially the solo work by many of the principals is full of character. With its long Mahler tradition this orchestra knows instinctively how to colour and articulate Mahlerís music and they are being conducted by a maestro who by now was steeped in the Mahler idiom and who had been their principal conductor for over twenty years.

After the second movement thereís a pause while the orchestra re-tunes and itís at this point that Maria Ewing makes her discreet entrance. The slow movement is beautifully handled by Haitink. He and the orchestra judge Mahlerís sweet lyricism to perfection; the music sings and is never overdone. The great climax is powerful yet not overbearing and then the pacific wind-down to the movementís close is achieved with great sensitivity.

The finale is something of a challenge for both the conductor and the soloist in that, Janus-like, it faces in two directions. On the one hand thereís the surface innocence, naivety even, of the song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. On the other, parts of the poem, and Mahlerís setting of it, have elements of darkness and grotesquerie Ė the latter quality very apparent in the orchestral interludes between stanzas. Leonard Bernstein controversially used a boy treble to sing this setting in his DG recording of the work (review ~ review). Thatís one Bernstein Mahler recording that Iíve not heard but I must say I find it hard to imagine that a young singer would have the intellectual maturity to understand fully the emotional range of the setting and, in particular, to know how to strike the balance between childlike innocence and sophistication Ė goodness knows, many adult sopranos donít get it right.

The American soprano, Maria Ewing, is pretty successful, I think. Sheíd performed the work before with Haitink and this orchestra: sheís the soloist in a 1982 live performance that was included in a boxed set of Christmas Day performances of most of the symphonies. This set was admired by Tony Duggan, and rightly so. Sadly, I donít think itís available any longer but if you ever come across a copy snap it up because there are some very fine performances in it. In this 1986 performance Miss Ewing sings very well. She invests the music with just the right amount of character Ė mercifully, she never overdoes it Ė and her singing offers much pleasure. Haitink conducts expertly. Everything resolves into a magical rendition of the last stanza where a touching sense of peacefulness and quiet rapture is achieved.

This is a fine performance of Mahlerís Fourth which deserved the standing ovation it received. The picture quality is satisfactory if a little dated. The sound is decent enough but on my equipment I had to turn up the volume; perhaps this was why high frequencies tended to distort slightly. Nonetheless, this Blu-Ray is well worth acquiring as an example of Bernard Haitinkís prowess in Mahler and as a souvenir of his long and distinguished tenure as principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

John Quinn

Another review (DVD version) ...

A satisfying, middle-of-the-road performance for all the right reasons. The Fourth is as approachable as anything Mahler wrote. There is only one proper climax, that in the slow movement, but it is of such searing beauty that it stays in the mind long afterwards. Mahler does do some consciously clever things, like introducing an out-of-tune, or more accurately a differently tuned, violin in the scherzo and he makes the finale an intentionally anti-climactic movement. It is also the shortest of his symphonies since the First, and the quietest of any of them. The playing of the Concertgebouw is absolutely magnificent, especially the horns and woodwind. The camera loves the lady first horn (whose name I cannot determine) and she does make a difficult part seem easy. The Concertgebouw has always been one of the top handful of orchestras in the world, if not the top, and their understated virtuosity still astonishes. Haitink does what he usually does, gives us an exemplary reading of the score which sounds so 'right' that there is nothing to say; one just listens to Mahler, a point made in the interesting accompanying note. Maria Ewing sings beautifully in the finale, the words of which seem so naÔve when given in subtitles that one needs to remember that Mahler used them as part of a much larger vision involving not just the Fourth, but also the Third symphony.

The reason I cannot get excited about this disc is technical. The picture is poor by current standards. 1986 is a long time ago in video terms. We are talking pre-high definition and pre-widescreen. The only nod towards modernity is that it is in colour. This is what television looked like thirty years ago. Perhaps the more serious problem is the sound. The dynamic range is narrow and much worse the woodwind especially are afflicted by constant low-level flutter so that they seem to be playing under water. I have not seen or heard the Blu-ray issue of this performance but I imagine it too has these same problems because they must come from the analogue master tape, flutter not being a digital artefact.

With top class modern recordings from multiple other conductors available in high definition pictures with surround sound this seem to be an entirely redundant issue unless one specifically wants to hear and see these performers, particularly Maria Ewing. Sir Bernard has made several recordings of the work in much, much better sound. He has not however, to my knowledge made a video. That would be the sole reason for purchasing this issue.

Dave Billinge

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