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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1900)
Sabine Devieilhe (soprano)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2021, La Seine Musicale, RIFFX Studio 1, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
German text and English & French translations included

I’ve been following with great interest the developing Mahler symphony cycle conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Initially, he recorded with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, with whom he set down the Fifth in 2017 (review) and the Third the following year (review). When it came to the First Symphony, also in 2018, not only did Roth use his period instrument orchestra, Les Siècles but also he presented the work as Titan (Tone poem in symphonic form in two parts and five movements for a large orchestra) (Hamburg/Weimar 1893-4 version) (review). After that revelatory performance the cycle ground to a Covid-induced halt. Indeed, there were times, as the restrictions on musical life seemed interminable, when I genuinely worried how long it would be before we’d hear again performances of Mahler symphonies, involving, as they do, very substantial forces. Happily, things have improved significantly and, at last it’s been possible to resume the Roth cycle with this performance, set down under studio conditions, in November 2021.

By chance, this CD arrived at a time when I’ve been immersing myself in David Vernon’s new book, Beauty and Sadness. Mahler’s 11 Symphonies, for a forthcoming review. He devotes a chapter to each work and I’ve coupled my reading with listening to a recording of the symphony under discussion. To accompany Vernon’s views on the Fourth I chose Rafael Kubelik’s excellent DG studio recording, which Tony Duggan discussed in his survey. I found it stimulating to listen to Kubelik in the context of David Vernon’s book but – and this is no disparagement of Kubelik – I fancy I might have had a different experience had the Roth performance been to hand at that time.

David Vernon persuasively lays considerable stress on the dark side of the Fourth. In particular, he emphasises the extent to which Mahler dwells on childhood in the symphony and avers that for Mahler “childhood is a site of primal trauma as well as innocent joy”. To judge by comments in an interview reprinted in Harmonia Mundi’s booklet, François-Xavier Roth doesn’t go as far as that, though he’s far from impervious to the score’s dark side. So, for instance, he says this of the slow movement: “[ it’s] an ode to gentleness, to peace. Usually in Mahler, the lyrical, gentle passages still remain sombre, full of anguish and hidden sadness, but here there’s an extraordinary plenitude that’s rare with him.”

At the start of the first movement, I was initially disconcerted by Roth’s swift tempo. The marking is Bedächtig. Nicht eilen (Thoughtful. Not rushed). As I listened on, I came increasingly to feel that Roth does not take sufficient account of the Nicht eilen instruction. Puzzled, I returned to Kubelik and found that his core tempo is fairly close to Roth’s; and, indeed, his overall timing for the movement is 15:47, which is near-identical to Roth’s 15:42. The crucial difference, though, is that Kubelik is much more willing to modify the pace, often subtly, to make little nuanced points. Though Roth does this on occasions the overall impression I took from the performance was one of haste and energy. If I’m honest, I detect little in the way of surface charm. He lacks Kubelik’s instinctive willingness to relax. That said, there’s much to relish here – and learn - from the orchestral timbres. I read in the booklet that the members of Les Siècles use “instruments allemands et autrichiens de 1900, cordes en boyaux [gut strings]”. So, the sounds we hear conjure up for us as far as is possible what Mahler himself would have heard. There is no fat on the orchestral sound. Oftentimes, the sound of the high woodwinds is piercing, which sounds just right in this context, and the horns cut through marvellously. The astringency of the sound is unsettling and uncomfortable and despite my reservation about the pacing, I think the orchestral sounds and textures – which are clear as a bell – illuminate for us what Mahler was seeking to convey. And because the sound of the orchestra is so crucial to the success of the performance, I’m inclined to think that Roth would have achieved his interpretative vision of the music even at a slightly more yielding tempo.

If I am thoughtful about aspects of the reading of the first movement, I have no qualms whatsoever about what Roth and his team present in the second movement. I like Roth’s tempo selections very much; he seems to get the pacing of the various episodes just right. Once again, though, it’s the orchestral sound that especially compels attention. The deliberately mis-tuned solo violin of François-Marie Drieux makes its mark to a greater extent than I can recall hearing in any previous performance – though Kubelik’s violinist, playing on a modern instrument, is also highly successful. Roth’s solo horn (Rémi Gormand) makes no less telling a contribution. This music should sound pungent, even sour, and that’s what Les Siècles offer us. As I listened, I thought that in this movement in particular, Roth and his colleagues give us a genuine sense of how strange this music must have seemed to its first audiences. Roth presents us with a degree of charm but, crucially, the charm is refracted through a sinister lens. This is a terrific exposure of the movement; it’s sarcastic and provocative.

What are we to make of the slow movement, which Mahler marked Ruhevoll? Referring back to the comment by Roth which I quoted earlier, one might reasonably expect his reading to offer us “an ode to gentleness, to peace”, but I’m not so sure, even though the musicians play the music with great finesse and sensitivity. In the opening pages, the strings eschew vibrato and the result is nothing like as plush as one would hear from a modern symphony orchestra. This lack of vibrato peels away, to my way of thinking, any excess of surface beauty. That’s not to say, though, that the beauty Mahler wrote into the music is not there; the playing evidences plenty of feeling, but the sound is lean, not rich. In this context, the oboe solos (Hélène Mourot) have even more of the quality of a lament than one is accustomed to hearing. Even more telling is the passage beginning at 7:43 which includes a prominent violin solo. The solo line is played with downward slides during each phrase and here each one of those slides sound like tears falling. The big climax, near the end, is akin to blinding light; the sound is not as full as one hears from a modern orchestra, of course, but in context it’s just right. Roth adopts a slightly more expansive approach to Kubelik, taking two minutes longer than his Czech predecessor. I love the flow that Kubelik brings to the music, but I’m also fully convinced by Roth.

In the finale we hear the French soprano, Sabine Devieilhe, whose singing I very much enjoyed. At the very start, Roth paces the music genially but the piquant orchestral textures discourage any sense of complacency. The fast-paced orchestral interjections between the vocal stanzas are positively acid and that reminds us, properly, that there’s much more to this movement than a comfortable vision of heaven. Furthermore, when in the second verse the singer references butchery as a prelude to heavenly feasting, the pungent orchestra, the horns n particular, leave no room for doubt about what’s going on: here and elsewhere, the effect of the orchestral contributions is often disturbing – as it should be. In the final stanza the soft instrumental timbres accentuate the gentleness of the music and provide a lovely cushion for Ms Devieilhe’s engaging singing.

Perhaps in time I’ll become more attuned to François-Xavier Roth’s energetic way with the first movement. But even if I don’t, this is still a compelling, provocative and stimulating account of Mahler’s Fourth to which I’m certain I shall return in the future. The attractions of hearing Mahler’s music played on instruments of his time are manifold and it seems to me that Roth and his colleagues here offer many insights into the score. Mahler’s Fourth is one of the most popular of his works but perhaps that’s because some listeners – and conductors too – tend to overlook the troubled, unsettling nature of the music and focus instead on the surface charm. There’s little danger of such seduction here, I suggest.

The performance has been recorded in excellent sound. That, allied to the spare textures, allows for a great deal of inner detail to emerge very naturally. The documentation, in French, English and German, is good.

This is a thought-provoking rendition of the Fourth which all Mahlerians should hear.

John Quinn

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