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Mahler sym4 PTC5186972
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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.4 in G major [56:49]
Chen Reiss (soprano)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov
rec. 21-26 August 2020, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186972 [56:49]

Mahler’s fourth symphony has always been one of his most popular, and not just on account of its relative brevity and the modest forces it requires. It has also been remarkably successful on record. It is therefore something of a surprise that in the last few years we have seen a clutch of outstanding new versions. Proof that no recording is ever the final word when it comes to truly great scores. To that recent pair of performances by Jurowski and Jakub Hruša, I would now add this new Pentatone release by Semyon Bychov.

Bychov himself seems to have been around forever and, fine though his early work was, recently he seems to have hit that stage in a conductor’s career where everything ripens and matures. I recently had the good fortune to catch up with his Tchaikovsky cycle on Decca with the same Czech orchestra which is crowned by a truly outstanding Manfred. Thankfully, Pentatone also seem to have realised that something rather special is going on between this conductor and this orchestra and are intent on setting it down on disc for posterity.

The trick with a great performance of this symphony lies in having an ear for the characterful detail with which the scores abounds at the same time attending to its grander horizons. Too many recordings smooth out the kinks in the former rendering the latter bland and superficial. A case in point is the devilish out of tune fiddle in the second movement. Karajan is just the worst offender amongst many in finessing this effect away. If Bychkov and his Czech leader aren’t quite as vibrant as Hruša’s fiddler, they are at least suitably abrasive. Nobody can get even close to Mengelberg in terms of dramatisation of the many heterodox elements but in the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov possesses an orchestra that can give him a run for his money in terms of music making with personality.

To sample Bychkov’s attentiveness to the more spiritual dimension of a work that ends, after all, with a child’s vision of heaven, have a listen to how he seems to be eavesdropping on eternity just before the 16 minute mark in the first movement. The way he slows the pulse here is an example of the fact that Bychkov is unafraid to intervene though always with great taste and sleight of hand. Like Bruno Walter, in a magnificent live taping with the Vienna Philharmonic on Orfeo, the listener is never made aware of the numerous gear changes.

In the second movement, the conductor needs to set the extremes between the picaresque and the profound to maximum to stop this movement becoming just an interlude and that is precisely what Bychkov does. He also sets the scene beautifully for a surprisingly solemn version of the slow movement. Horenstein with the LPO did something similar in what remains my favourite version of this symphony and that Bychkov belongs in his company is the highest praise I can muster. Like Horenstein’s recording this is not a particularly plush account of this slow movement and the contrast between the serene and the anguished sections is not as pronounced as in, for example, Jurowski’s superb live account. There is already an edge to the opening of the movement in Bychkov’s hands rather than just a dreamy reverie. The pain when it comes is stupendous. It benefits from breathtaking sound from Pentatone. The depth of the sonic picture really is impressive.

The other big interpretative moment comes, of course, at the climax of the slow movement when the gates of heaven are meant to be thrown open. In my experience, they seldom are with this climax sounding noisy and somewhat disappointing. Even Horenstein fails to live up to the big moment here though I believe that he saw the real climax of the movement as residing in the last of the minor key laments that precede it. Bychkov and his Czech musicians make a splendid racket in this passage which I found thrilling. No hint of anticlimax. Only Gabriel Feltz in his shamefully overlooked complete live cycle goes one better. That recording was released in 2012 so I didn’t feel I could include it in my clutch of recent recordings mentioned at the start of this review but it certainly deserves consideration as one of the very best.

The only major drawback for me about this recording is the choice of soprano. It is not that Chen Reiss doesn’t sing wonderfully- she does. It is just that she sounds too grown up and too worldly wise. Preferences with regard to singers in this work are notoriously subjective and others may feel more inclined to Reiss’ voice in this movement than I did. Somewhat naughtily, I imagined her as a stern school mistress lecturing the children which seemed to help me get in the spirit of proceedings. Bychkov keeps things moving in this movement which gives a lovely rocking motion to its last couple of minutes. Reiss scales her voice down nicely for this passage. The sense I had of Bychkov’s conception of this finale was one of relaxation after the troubled business of a darker than normal account of the slow movement which I found highly convincing.

These slight reservations about the singer in the finale do not dampen my enthusiasm for what is an outstanding version of a score that continues to spring surprises. I am no more able to choose between Jurowski, Hruša, Feltz and Bychkov (without even mentioning Tilson Thomas’ meltingly lovely version in San Francisco) than I ever have been at picking a winner between Walter, Klemperer or Horenstein. Listen to them all and please Pentatone more Mahler from Bychkov and his crack Czech orchestra!

David McDade

Previous review: John Quinn

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