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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.4 in G (1899-1900) [61:38]
Essi Luttinen (mezzo)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 27-29 May 2019. DDD.
Text and translation of finale included
ALBA ABCD454 [61:38]

I’ve just finished my share of updating Tony Duggan’s very popular Synoptic Survey of the Mahler symphonies. That update includes a brief review of this new recording along with Tony Duggan’s choices and some of the newer recordings of Symphony No.4 which have appeared since 2006.

As Tony Duggan left matters, his favourite versions were ‘Horenstein, KubelŪk and Kletzki from the past generation, and Gatti, Boulez and Tilson Thomas from the present’ with that of Michael Tilson Thomas ‘a truly great version and certainly the best all round for performance and recorded sound together’.

Some of those older recordings are now hard to come by; I’ve included details in my update.

I’m surprised that Bruno Walter and George Szell, both recorded by CBS didn’t make the final cut. The Szell, with Judith Raskin an ideal soloist, is available only as a download, without booklet, and more expensive than when it was available as a budget CD (Sony G0100013929977, with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Andew Davis, or Columbia G010003872253J). The Sony costs around £12 in lossless sound – as much as you would expect to pay for a new recording. The Columbia is less expensive, around £8.50, but offers the symphony only. Some dealers still have the Sony CD for around £10.

Ever since it appeared as one of the earliest CBS classics LPs at mid-price, having been released at full price only two years earlier, I’ve been a fan of Szell’s way with Mahler, not just in the Fourth, but in the Sixth (Sony 88697008132 – review, now download only) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau (Warner Original Jacket 9029573984, around £7.50 – review of earlier reissue).

Generally regarded as a martinet conductor, Szell nevertheless captures the spirit of No.4; he’s well served by Judith Raskin in the finale and, of course, his own Cleveland Orchestra offer model playing. There’s a hi-definition version of Szell’s Fourth, but I can’t recommend it – the top line sounds too shrill. The Sony CD, which is my benchmark for this symphony, sounds much better.

My other benchmarks include Tilson Thomas – on that I very much concur with Tony Duggan – who makes a very slow tempo for the third movement work well where others fail to do so – DL Roundup August 2010. (SFS Media SFS0004).

Mahler asks for the third movement to be Ruhevoll (restful), poco adagio, which usually means an overall timing of around 23 minutes, sometimes as short as 21 minutes, for example from IvŠn Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel CCSSA26109, SACD). That’s one of the recordings which has appeared since TD’s survey (in 2009). Leslie Wright thought it the version to beat (Recording of the Month – review) and I now regard it as my third benchmark; having originally disliked it, as heard in mp3, listening to it again in better, 24-bit, sound I had a real change of heart (DL Roundup November 2011/1). The moral is always to go for the best possible sound – from SACD where available, or 24-bit download.

Michael Wilkinson, reviewing the recent Osmo Všnskš recording (BIS-2356 SACD, reviewed by me in 24-bit stereo from eclassical.com), thought that it ranked with the very best. Despite my own low expectations, he seems much more attuned to the world of this last of the Wunderhorn symphonies than to its successors. Tilson Thomas has demonstrated that a very slow tempo works for the third movement and it works well for Vanskš, too. All in all, I enjoyed the Všnskš Fourth – and, incidentally, his Seventh – much more than I had expected, but the Klimt-inspired cover is hardly appropriate for this symphony.

Leif Segerstam recorded some of the Mahler symphonies for Chandos quite a while ago. His recording of the Fourth, on CHAN9836, earned a degree of praise from Tony Duggan as a persuasive alternative to the mainstream views of Kletzki, Szell, Horenstein and KubelŪk – review. That recording remains available from chandos.net as a download (mp3 or lossless) or as a CDR to special order.

Segerstam’s view of the outer movements on the new Alba recording remains largely unchanged, but he now takes longer over the second movement and is faster in the third. I’ve already said that in the first movement a sense of rubato is all-important; get it right and it sounds natural, get it wrong and it’s simply artificial. I initially thought that IvŠn Fischer made it sound artificial, though I came to think otherwise, but I doubt that I shall warm to Segerstam in the same way. It’s as if he wants to underline every detail, to extract every ounce of drama. With the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra serving him rather better than the Danish Radio Orchestra on Chandos, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it impedes the flow of the music. Tony Duggan’s three-word summary of the earlier Chandos recording is largely applicable to the new release: dramatic, romantic and often mannered.

At least, the third movement is not as slow as before, though the effect remains deeply expressive – I find myself continually using Tony Duggan’s words – and a call to rethink for all those who consider this the most placid of Mahler’s symphonies.

Whatever has gone before, any recording of this symphony stands or falls with the quality of the soloist in the finale. Too operatic and the fairy tale atmosphere is lost; too little-girlish and it sounds as if the singer is in heavy weather. Given that Emma Kirkby never recorded it, Judith Raskin for Szell comes pretty close to the ideal. I’m aware that voice quality is the most subjective thing about reviewing – having just heard Dame Sarah Connolly in Das Lied von der Erde, I seem about to become in a minority of one in not raving about that new Pentatone recording – but Essi Luttinen also seems just right here.

The new Segerstam recording leaves me with a good feeling after this account of the finale, and Alba have recorded his team in good quality. There’s even a hi-res download from Qobuz, which I sampled as well as the CD; it’s available for £11.99, which is less than you would pay for the CD, and it comes with the booklet in pdf format. All in all, however, though you wouldn’t go too far wrong with this new recording, there is better to be had. Even after my lengthy excursion through the world of Mahler’s Fourth, I find myself returning to Szell, Tilson Thomas and IvŠn Fischer, with no sense of reviewer fatigue.

Brian Wilson



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