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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1901)
Barbara Hendricks (soprano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Essa-Pekka Salonen
rec. 10 & 11 February 1992, Royce Hall (UCLA), Los Angeles
Presto CD
SONY SK48380 [58:10]

Despite being nearly thirty years old, this recording does not seem to have gained much exposure in reviews and surveys and wasn’t on my radar either, so I was interested to make its acquaintance. It is a light, charming account of Mahler’s sunniest symphony and the most sparsely scored; Salonen secures transparent orchestral textures and speeds are on the brisk side. The first introduction of the tripping sleigh bells is paced conventionally enough but their subsequent appearances are almost hasty and the ensuing ride is a gallop rather than a canter. Some might like a rather denser orchestral sound and weightier phrasing for the second theme but Salonen’s approach is all of a piece which tends to eschew typically Mahlerian Angst. In this regard, it is closest to Gergiev’s surprisingly bright and lilting account (review). The climax ten minutes into the first movement, however, does indeed sound unprepared and rushed as if Salonen wants to gloss over its import and get it over with so he can re-establish a brighter mood.

The Scherzo is beautifully played but Salonen similarly underplays the potentially more macabre elements in favour of wit and humour. The sweet serenity of the third movement is enhanced by the seamless purity and steadiness of the Los Angeles violins (and completely refutes the Wikipedia description of it as “a solemn processional march”; it isn’t). The emphasis here is upon Mahler’s instruction “Ruhevoll” (Peaceful/restful) and once again shadows flee; the sunburst heralding the coda is radiant.

Some find Barbara Hendricks’ soprano a little too arch or “knowing” with its fast, flickering vibrato as opposed to the flutier, straighter vocal production of child-voices, but she is able to take some of the vibrancy out of her voice for passages such as most of the last stanza and has a boyish lower register. She sings joyfully and I find her to be a match for other celebrated exponents of this faintly ghoulish Wunderhorn song such as Margaret Price and Kathleen Battle, who have a similar vocal layout.

I much enjoy this interpretation – it is a young man’s vision which affords delight but some will find that it skates over the symphony’s darker undertones.

Ralph Moore

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