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Mahler sym4 PTC5186972
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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major
Chen Reiss (soprano)
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
rec. live 21-26 August 2020, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague
German text and English translation included
PENTATONE PTC5186972 [56:49]

Because Mahler is so strongly identified with Austria it’s understandable if on occasion his Czech roots are overlooked; but it should never be forgotten that he was born in Bohemia and spent his childhood years in Moravia. How fitting, then, that the Czech Philharmonic should embark on a cycle of his symphonies for Pentatone, of which this disc is the first instalment. The orchestra isn’t exactly a stranger to Mahler’s music: they recorded a complete cycle with Václav Neumann between 1976 and 1982. I haven’t heard any of those recordings, though I do have in my collection a fine recording of the Ninth which they made with Karel Ančerl in 1966 (SU36932); they also recorded the First with him.

At the helm for this projected new cycle will be Semyon Bychkov who has been the CPO’s chief conductor and music director since 2018. I’ve never had the opportunity to see Bychkov live, though I have heard a few of his CDs. I’ve seen several reports by critics of his visits to London to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra and there seems to be a general consensus that he always raises their game. It seems to me that he’s one of the most interesting conductors around so I was eager to hear him in Mahler. As he explains in the booklet, he first encountered Mahler’s music when, as a schoolboy, he sneaked in to a Leningrad Philharmonic rehearsal of the Third. It would seem that his development as a Mahler conductor has not been straightforward because he’s been so self-critical. Just as I was appraising this new disc I read a most interesting interview he gave to the Presto Classical website and I was intrigued to read there that, earlier in his career, he cancelled planned performances of the Ninth Symphony no fewer than four times because, as the concerts approached, he didn’t feel ready. Disappointing for the audiences, but refreshingly self-aware on Bychkov’s part. Now, though, he clearly feels ready to tackle the symphonies on disc. The original plan had been to begin the cycle with the Second Symphony but Covid restrictions put paid to that and instead the Fourth is the opening work. However, that’s quite a good thing because, as Gavin Plumley points out in his excellent notes, this is a score which reflects Mahler’s Czech roots.

The first time I played this disc I was struck by several things. One was the lovely, airy and natural recorded sound. Another was the exceptional quality of the orchestra’s playing. The third was the excellence of Bychkov’s conducting. Further listening reinforced those impressions.

The first movement is beautifully done. The playing is fresh and deft and I love the way that here, and throughout the symphony, Bychkov is generous – though not excessively so – with string portamenti. That’s one reason the performance sounds so idiomatic. In the aforementioned Presto Classical interview Bychkov comments that most of the members of the CPO are Czech, thanks in no small measure to a steady supply of talented young players coming through the Czech Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. The collective sound nowadays isn’t what it was in the Ančerl era – that distinctive East European brass and horn timbre is a thing of the past, as is the special tang in the woodwind tone – but even so I have the impression of a Central European sound and Mahler’s music comes across in an authentic fashion. Bychkov shapes the music affectionately and he handles the many tempo changes and modifications with consummate skill. He and the orchestra also bring out successfully the music’s darker side, not least at the movement’s main climax which, significantly, peters out with a premonition of the trumpet fanfare that we shall hear again at the start of the Fifth Symphony. Throughout the movement detail is nicely pointed, so one’s ear is continuously being led by telling little things in Mahler’s scoring. I should also mention that both the playing and the recording have a terrific dynamic range. Nowhere is this better evidenced than almost at the end of the movement where the violins have a very quiet lead in to the short coda (16:23). So softly and delicately do the CPO violins play these notes that one almost has to strain to hear them; the effect is breath taking.

The account of the second movement is piquant with strongly pointed rhythms and great attention to detail. The uncredited concertmaster contributes suitably astringent solos. Bychkov obtains really incisive playing but nothing is forced or out of scale. I relished the humour of the music and also the way the darker side is brought out.

Then we have the third movement: Ruhevoll, poco adagio. The start is spacious and lovingly shaped. Hearing the strings in these opening minutes really whetted my appetite for what’s in store when this cycle reaches the finale of the Third Symphony. Bychkov is really patient in the way he unfolds the movement and, once again, his selection of tempi and the way he handles tempo changes is completely convincing. The more troubled episode in mid-movement is very well done, the darker orchestral hues ideally voiced. The great climax (17:50) is radiant.

There’s beguiling simplicity at the opening of the final movement, to which Chen Reiss contributes attractively: she sings very well and without artifice. The darker side of the Heavenly Life, which is described in stanza 2, comes across very well as we hear of lambs and oxen going to be slaughtered for the heavenly feasting. The closing stanza (‘Kein Musik is ja nicht auf Erden’) is as hushed and delicate as you could wish for. The stanza includes the line ‘Die englischen Stimmen ermuntern die Sinnen’ (The angelic voices rouse the senses); in this performance one has a definite feeling that angel voices are soothing us.

When I listened to this performance for the first time, I felt that it was a fine account of Mahler’s Fourth. Subsequent listening has made me think it’s more than that. Superb playing, expert, idiomatic conducting and lovely recorded sound combine to make this a distinguished version. I’ve enjoyed it very much indeed and if future instalments are at this exalted level, then this Mahler cycle will be well worth following. I’m definitely keen to hear more.

This is an auspicious launch for Semyon Bychkov’s Mahler cycle with the Czech Philharmonic

John Quinn

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