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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, Francer> Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (German & English)

Decades after it began, the Mahler phenomenon shows no sign of going away. And it's not hard to see why; apart from the musical rewards - which are immense - orchestras are guaranteed bums on seats, labels a healthy bottom line. As a result, hardly a concert season or release list goes by without including at least one of the composer's works. Which is good news for Mahler devotees. The bar has been set very high, so not every performance will be a memorable one. That said, having listened to this music for more than forty years - and reviewed it for fifteen - I've always found something new to enjoy. In 2019 I had the privilege of reviewing two outstanding one-offs: a revelatory Ninth from Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberger Symphoniker (Accentus) and a searing Scherzo-Andante Sixth from Michael Gielen and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (SWR Music). This live Salzburg recording from 2013 was released as a posthumous tribute to this great Mahlerian; it's also a reminder of the fine orchestra he led for so long.

As for recent cycles - completed or still ongoing - they've yielded some very recommendable Fourths. First up, Ádám Fischer's, which kicked off his Mahler in 2016 (C-Avi). Recorded live with the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, it's buoyant and full of character, soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller an attractive and idiomatic soloist in the child-heaven finale. Alas, subsequent instalments haven't lived up to this early promise. Much more successful is his younger brother Iván's recording, made with the Budapest Festival Orchestra eight years earlier as part of a recently completed Mahler survey (Channel Classics). Wonderfully transparent and always insightful, this version has the inestimable advantage of a near-ideal soloist, Miah Persson. (Jared Sacks's recording is top-notch, too.) At the other end of the scale is Yannick Nézet-Séguin's somewhat gilded performance, recorded in 2014 and released as part of the Berliner Philharmoniker's complete Mahler set. Indeed, it's a far cry from his taut, utterly compelling account of the First, captured live in Munich the same year (BR Klassik). Fast forward to 2020, and a fine-spun Fourth from Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic (Pentatone). There's much to admire here, not least the elegant playing and the holographic sound. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful rendition of the piece than this, soprano Chen Reiss suitably child-like - if much too distant - at the end. But, for all that, one could argue Bychkov pursues refinement at the expense of spontaneity and character.

Enter François-Xavier Roth, whose Mahler has surprised and delighted me at every turn. The emerging traversal, shared between
the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and his period-instrument band, Les Siècles, represents a genuine, hugely rewarding reappraisal of these remarkable symphonies. I characterised Roth's Fifth as 'old Vienna refracted through a strange new lens', and his Third as 'game changing'. Then, as if to emphasise his very individual approach to this repertoire, he eschewed the traditional First in favour of the composer's early thoughts on the piece, Titan, 'a tone poem in symphonic form in two parts and five movements for a large orchestra' (Hamburg/Weimar 1893-94 version). Roth reveals the guileless quality of Mahler's early writing, its wide-eyed wonder; that, coupled with Les Siècles' lucid, deeply committed playing, makes this one of the most rewarding Mahler performances I've heard in years. (The transparent, very detailed recording is superb, too.)

In many ways, the Fourth is a perfect vehicle for this supremely talented team, the light textures and bright animations of the opening movement especially so. As it happens, this music emerges with more warmth and weight than I'd expected, yet buoyancy and detail are never compromised. Colours and timbres are simply gorgeous, and Roth's refusal to linger lovingly - as Bychkov does - brings with it a firm sense of shape and purpose. Even more welcome is the Frenchman's emphasis on contrast, which, in turn, creates a strong and varied narrative. True, Les Siècles' horn player can't match his Czech counterpart for sheer loveliness of tone, but in other departments - the woodwind in particular - the French orchestra perform with a delightful insouciance that suits this opener very well indeed.

Even at this early stage I became aware that a work I've known for a very long time was being presented in a new and interesting light. Then again, that's what Roth does best. In other music - Debussy and Ravel, for example - that urge to remake the works at hand isn't always entirely convincing, but with Mahler his method really gets results. Take the second movement of the Fourth, its abiding strangeness all too often underplayed. The parodic fiddling is very much in evidence, that unsettling sense of things that go bump in the night similarly well caught. (Bychkov seems unaccountably bland here.) Most important, Roth demonstrates how the desired effects can be achieved without recourse to embellishment or exaggeration.

Clearly, this reading of the symphony isn't as sunny as some, the penultimate movement framed in a more uncompromising way than usual. That manifests itself in an apparent lowering of the music's centre of gravity, which darkens the mood appreciably. (Has that crowning climax - not to mention its quiet postlude - ever sounded so equivocal?) Some will baulk at what the Frenchman does here, but others will see it as an apt, cogently argued change of mood and manner. In that sense, this movement is made to seem remarkably prescient, looking ahead to the new century, rather than retreating to the old one. However, we're back in traditional Wunderhorn mode with a light, airy and beautifully detailed account of Mahler's miraculous finale. As for Roth's soprano, Sabine Devieilhe, her clear, unforced delivery is a perfect complement to the naturalness and spontaneity of Les Siècles' playing. What an unexpected treat!

An intriguing fin-de-siècle Fourth; a must-hear for Mahlerians and Roth fans alike.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John Quinn

Published: October 6, 2022

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