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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1900)* [54:02]
Piano Quartet in A minor: 1. Nicht zu schnell
Orch. Colin Matthews (1876-78/2008-09) [12:55]
Miah Persson (soprano)*
Orchestra Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Gustavo Gimeno
rec. 2017, Philharmonie Luxembourg
Reviewed in SACD stereo
PENTATONE PTC5186651 SACD [67:12]

There is no shortage of Mahler’s symphonies on CD these days, but this recording is rather special. For a start there is the demonstration sound quality which is detailed and revealing, while at the same time having a perfect balance and an entirely natural sounding perspective. You’ll want your best system to bring out the subtle subterranean bass drum strokes, the throaty depths of the double-bassoon and thrum of the harp’s lower fundamentals, but those with properly set-up subwoofers or other full-range set-ups will enjoy a thrilling ride on Luxembourg’s best orchestral music-making machine.

None of this would count for anything if the performance was second-rate, but this is one of the best new Mahler symphonies I’ve heard on record for a while. The die is cast in the first three bars of this symphony, at the end of which there is a poco rit. marked in the clarinets, but not with the flutes and Schelle or sleighbells. Conductors such as Roger Norrington on his Hänssler recording with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra slows everyone down at this point, but there is evidence that Mahler himself wanted ohne rit. from everyone other than the clarinets. There is the added complication of the Etwas zurückhaltend marking over the first violin entry at exactly this point, but we mustn’t be critical of Gustavo Gimeno’s work on this moment, which might seem strange but all magically comes together at the beginning of the fourth bar, apparently as envisioned by the composer.

I’m not about to do the same thing with every corner of this symphony, but this is the kind of detail which you can relish and appreciate throughout this recording. Gimeno brings out all of Mahler’s hairpin dynamic markings, at which there can be both diminuendo and crescendo within single notes, heightening the expressive power of the music and making sure we’re getting as much as possible of what Mahler wanted to hear. The collective effect of all this minutely accurate preparation is a recording with depth and communicative élan that kept me engrossed from beginning to end.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is an unusual one, with its vast 20-plus minute third movement, and a finale which is an arrangement of the song Das himmlische Leben composed by Mahler in 1892. Critics have argued that this results in a fizzling out of an otherwise inspired work, but in his booklet notes Steven Vande Moortele argues that, with the “thematic prefigurations” of the song elsewhere in the symphony making sense only retrospectively; “the finale thus functions as a capstone of the entire symphony, the moment where everything falls into place, the goal to which the preceding movements have been striving…” Soprano Miah Persson is a Mahler veteran who has not only recorded this work before, but has also worked with Bernard Haitink and Benjamin Zander in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony, and she is excellent here as well.

Comparisons are legion for this work of course, and as ever Tony Duggan’s survey of Mahler symphonic recordings is certainly a useful place to start. When it comes to recent SACD versions Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra on the Channel Classics label springs to mind as it also has soprano Miah Persson for the finale (review). I’ve only heard this via online streaming so daren’t comment on the recording quality in detail, but it is indeed a splendid performance and remains a firm contender when heard alongside this Luxembourg recording.

People flicking through the CD cases in their local shop, if they are lucky enough still to have one, may wonder if ‘nicht zu schnell’ is a performance instruction for the Fourth Symphony. Why on earth designers think it’s clever to mess around with capital letters A. in German, where capital letters are of significant importance and B. on a cover where every other text is given capitals in the proper way I have no idea. Rant over, Nicht zu schnell in this case is Colin Matthews’ orchestral arrangement of Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor, his only surviving chamber music work and dating back to student days in Vienna. This piece has a Brahmsian late Romantic feel to it, enhanced by an orchestration that uses contemporary examples as a reference rather than attempting later Mahlerian colours. A harp adds sparkle, but there are no further unconventional additions or extremes of range, although there is plenty of idiomatic, almost Wagnerian drama from brass and percussion as the sonata-form develops into something approaching the realms of a symphonic poem. This is an interesting filler which has some lovely moments, but for me only marginally tips the balance in favour of this release.

This is a Mahler Fourth which certainly appears to replace a previous outing from Pentatone with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marc Albrecht (review). It has the secure feel of an orchestra that really has the work under its skin, and a brief search online shows at least one acclaimed concert performance with the same forces: always an experience that reinforces and enhances any subsequent recording. Gustavo Gimeno has had a mixed response from his Shostakovich and Bruckner recordings for Pentatone, but if you are looking for a fine Mahler Fourth Symphony in superb SACD sound then this is a great place to invest.

Dominy Clements



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