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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 4 in G major (1900)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Rec. 2019, Turku, Finland
ALBA ABCD454 [61:40]

Turku is a large south-western Finnish city on the river Aura, close to the coast on the Gulf of Bothnia, and after a little digital exploration, it looks very beautiful. It also possesses a fine concert hall, and, on the evidence of this disc a high-class orchestra to give concerts there. In fact, this turns out to be Finland’s first major symphony orchestra, having been founded in 1790. The city is on my bucket-list once things open up!

Mahler’s 4th Symphony is a transitional work. Compare it to the two previous symphonies; No 2 with its ecstatic choral finale, No 3 and its pantheistic musings on mankind and the natural world. We find ourselves, at the opening of No 4, in, of all things, a farmyard! All very relaxed, even Haydnesque. The marvellous thing about this movement, though, is how rich are the possibilities offered by this faux-naïf opening. The whole thing builds, with incremental complexity, to an alarming climax about two-thirds of the way through. Here, there are sinister trumpet fanfares, that later became the opening of Symphony No 5, and this upheaval throws a shadow over the rest of the movement.

Mahler littered his scores with ‘Ammerkung für den Dirigenten’ – notes for conductors. Every change of tempo, every dynamic shading is painstakingly marked in the score. So any conductor who decides to add major changes of his/her own is truly running the gauntlet. Leif Segerstam, no shrinking violet when it comes to interpretative eccentricities, is guilty, I’m afraid, of numerous unwarranted alterations, such as the headless chicken accelerando at fig. 2 in the first movement (track 1 around 1:30).

The second movement is Mahler’s ‘Danse Macabre’, where he follows Saint-Saëns in giving the leader a solo part, and asking for a scordatura, i.e. a special tuning (in this case all four strings tuned a tone higher than normal). There is no metronome mark, and Mahler’s heads the score with the direction ‘In gemächlicher bewegen. Ohne hast’, that is ‘moving at a leisurely pace without hurrying’. Well leisurely is one thing, but dragging your feet is quite another. Listening to recordings by Bruno Walter, Eduard van Beinum and Klaus Tennstedt amongst others to compare, I found them all significantly quicker than Segerstam. All of those observe the spirit of Mahler’s indication, and find a tempo which, while relaxed, preserves the nervy, slightly spectral quality of the movement. Under Segerstam, the music hangs fire, doesn’t flow, and loses its sinister character. The contrasting trio sections are, unbelievably, even slower!

All this is a shame, because there is some fine orchestral playing, for example from the strings in the Poco adagio 3rd movement, and some particularly expressive oboe solos. Segerstam does keep this movement on track, even if it is still one of the slowest on CD. The finale draws once more on the collection of folk poetry that Mahler loved so much, Das Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The child’s magic horn’). This is Das himmlische Leben - ‘The Heavenly Life’ - a child’s view of the joys of paradise. The soprano soloist is Essi Luttinen, who sings with plenty of engagement, but, for my taste, has too fruity and mature a voice for this music. Ideally, it needs a fresh, young sounding voice, such as Bernstein’s Reri Grist in his 1962 performance on Sony, or one of the finest recent recordings, Benjamin Zander on Telarc with the wonderful Camilla Tilling, who finds not only innocence but a childish wistfulness in her imaginative reading.

There is much to enjoy here, especially, as I’ve said, in the quality of the orchestral playing. But in repertoire such as this, where the competition is fierce to say the least, this recording isn’t, sadly, a serious contender.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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