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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2018, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS BIS-2356 SACD [59:25]

Of the various impressive ongoing Mahler cycles, including those by the Fischer brothers, the one by Osmo Vänskä, occupies an interesting place; and once it is completed, I suspect this recording of the Fourth Symphony will be seen to hold a special place. The virtues of Vänskä’s unsurpassed Sibelius cycle are evident here: clarity, forward motion, a willingness to allow the music to speak for itself, and sensitivity to detail. A bonus is divided strings, as Mahler himself experienced; the division is well-captured in the admirable SACD recording.

Performances of this symphony, at least on CD, seem to have become more expansive over the years. Osmo Vänskä’s timings are around the modern average of 57-60 minutes for the symphony as a whole, with Karajan and Maazel especially expansive. It is useful, but not definitive, to compare these timings with Kubelik, on DG, at 51.50, or two recordings of Klemperer, 55.00, in his EMI/Warner studio recording, or his earlier live performance with the Vienna Symphony (Testament SBT 1397) at around 53 minutes. The question lies around the crucial third movement, marked Ruhevoll. Mahler eschewed metronome markings, despite all the other detailed instructions in his scores. This movement is the beating heart of the symphony, with that wonderful and perhaps unparalleled heavenly vision. In this performance, Vänskä is more spacious even than Rattle or Karajan, at 23.00. This is daringly slow, yet nothing suggests any self-indulgence, and the momentum towards the climax is sustained, and there is dignity in the catharsis. It is instructive to compare this with Klemperer’s no-nonsense inevitability in this movement. He was never one to linger in slow movements, but his 18.09 (EMI) or 17.41 (Testament), swiftest of all I have heard, demonstrate very well a wonderfully different – and immensely powerful - approach. Osmo Vänskä is a touch less confident in his approach to this climax, but what follows is serenely lovely.

This is a difficult symphony to hold together and far too many performances are let down by indifferently realised finales. Vänskä connects it very well to the closing mood of the third movement, but an immense responsibility lies on the soprano soloist in the closing Das himmlische Liebe from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The Klemperer studio recording was fatally undermined by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s too-knowing, overly sophisticated, rendition: the work needs a mixture of radiance and simplicity – this is a child’s vision of heaven, with Saint Martha in the kitchen. I have never heard the piece as I hear it in my head, but Carolyn Sampson captures very much of the radiance, despite some darkness in the lower register and some indifferent articulation. Perhaps the ideal voice would be that of a younger Emma Kirkby, and she certainly performed the piece, notably with Norrington at the Carnegie in 2001, but, to the best of my knowledge, never recorded it.

The first two movements are splendidly realized, combining poetry with a sense of momentum, and just the right touch of the spectral in the soloist’s tuned-up violin in the second movement.

The quality of recording is beautifully clear – as one expects from BIS – and I like very much their robust, bio-friendly, slim packaging, a huge improvement on easily-broken jewel cases.

Make no mistake: this Mahler 4 ranks with the very best, and I shall return to it very often.

Michael Wilkinson

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