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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899/1901) (arr. chamber orchestra by Erwin Stein, 1921) [52:31]
Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Festival Ensemble Spannungen
rec. live, 10 June 2014, Heimbach, Hydroelectic plant RWE POWER AG
CAVI-MUSIC 8.553334 [52:31]

This recording comes from a chamber music festival “Spannungen” or “Tensions” held since 1998 in a remarkable Art Nouveau building from 1905, the Heimbach Hydro-electric Power Station. This festival attracts leading musicians, and the line-up for this recording includes names such as violinist Christian Tetzlaff and double bass player Alois Posch, performer of choice for the Hagen and Alban Berg quartets when it came to Schubert and frequent collaborator with the likes of Gidon Kremer. As far as the performance goes, we are in safe hands.

The same is true of the recording. Made as a co-production with German Radio this is delightful audio picture of a fine acoustic brought to life by musicians working in sublime synergy. There is detail in abundance but no artificial spotlighting, both subtle touches and full-on dramas captured beautifully. Audience noise is minimal, though there is enthusiastic applause and cheering by way of a conclusion.

With its often transparent lightness of touch, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony responds well to chamber-music arrangement. Pedro Obiera’s booklet notes remind us that this work had a difficult start in life, and these days it is hard to believe this symphony was rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic, forcing Mahler to move the premiere to Munich where it was greeted by “hisses and angry whistling”. Erwin Stein’s arrangement came about as part of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Society for Private Musical Performances”, including percussion and harmonium to the central ensemble of string quartet plus double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet and piano. This arrangement has proven quite popular in recent years, and this recording has competition from the Royal Academy of Music Soloists on LINN (review), the Sydney Soloists on ABC Classics (review), another live recording from the Manchester Camerata on AVIE (review), the more recommendable Thomas Christian Ensemble on MDG (review) also with Christiane Oelze as soloist, and the Orchestra of the Swan on SOMM (review) to name just the ones reviewed on this site. In other words there is no particular novelty value in this recording.

I don’t have all of these recordings to hand, so a pick of the very best is a tricky and rather unfair prospect. The Manchester Camerata conducted by Douglas Boyd is very good, though doesn’t have quite the playful Viennese edge and feel for the ironic humour in this music that the Spannungen ensemble throws out from the outset, though the buzz of the harmonium is more effective on the AVIE recording. If I have any criticism of the Heimbach recording then it would be to have had the harmonium a little more present in the mix – the interactions in the second movement for instance are not quite as telling as they might be. I like Trevor Pinnock’s recordings with the RAM Soloists on LINN, and with the advantage of SACD sound their Mahler is lively and expressive, a little more inclined to find the schmaltz in the music than some – though by no means unidiomatic for that.

Where this live festival recording wins is in its seeming café quality, with some gritty and spontaneous sounding touches animating the inner life of the music from the outset and throughout in a performance which eschews ultimate refinement for distinctiveness of character. This contrasts with those sublime moments of Mahler magic, with expectations from such a compact group of musicians defied by sounds that punch well above their weight. Viennese café culture was a fertile breeding ground for creativity until a couple of World Wars turned up and spoiled everything, and the dual nature of earthiness and heavenly inspiration expressed in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony could hardly have come from anywhere else.

This performance captures these qualities very well, and even though the lack of a coupling might count against this release I doubt anyone would be disappointed in its content.

Dominy Clements



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