The Fourth has always been Mahler's most accessible symphony, the one that
newcomers are often pointed to for their first contact, even though I would
argue a case for that deserved accessibility masking a more profound and
disturbing work than many imagine.
It's a work that shows him enjoying a new mastery of form along with a new-found
confidence, so it repays close attention by the listener and for that demands
a special effort on the part of the conductor for his performance to be lifted
out from the ordinary.
Daniele Gatti is forging a well-deserved reputation as a Mahler interpreter
these days and there is room in a very crowded list for this new recording.
His grasp of the many-faceted nature of this most popular of Mahler's works
is impressive, even though a few of his interpretative touches, some tempo
changes from bar to bar, might bother those more experienced Mahlerites whose
predilection is for the "hands-off" approach in this composer. I think Gatti's
interventions work superbly, grow out of the score and allow us to see those
deeper levels of meaning that are undoubtedly there waiting for us. On no
occasion does he betray lapse of taste or give the impression he is imposing
his own personality on the music. They make me think he comes out of the
tradition of Mengelberg in this work, controlling and interpreting every
bar and note.
There's no doubt Gatti submits the first movement to a deeper analysis than
is sometimes the case with the slower, reflective passages lovingly and warmly
conveyed and the sharper, quicker ones jerky and piquant, not missing the
grotesqueries beneath the surface. The complexity of themes in this movement
- Mahler's unique "continuous variation" technique which had its first mature
outing in this work - gains so much when the conductor carefully delineates
his tempi theme to theme. Gatti does this but is careful not to do it so
much he impedes the unfolding drama. This balanced approach pays dividends
in the development where the further variation the themes go through have
been made more memorable by the distinctive way they were first presented
and therefore we hear a close knitting together of the movement that acknowledges
its careful detailing. The central crisis of the movement, in fact the only
really troubled moment in the whole work, is when Mahler stirs up a climax
that finally unleashes the trumpet fanfare he will recall at the start of
the Fifth Symphony. Mahler called this the "kleiner appell" ("little call")
and under Gatti it has pungency especially when accompanied by some very
vivid bells indeed that are more menacing and nightmarish than we are often
used to at this point.
The central impression of the symphony having two faces, reflection contrasted
with restlessness, continues in the second movement. Here the Trios have
even more moulded contours than their near-counterparts in the first, and
on first hearing border on the mannered. It's a close run thing but I think
Gatti stops short of spoiling things. The acid test for me was that,
even after repeated listenings, they didn't pall, perhaps because they are
delivered with aplomb and imagination. I couldn't help smiling each time
they returned and that's usually a good sign. I do believe there should be
humour in the mix of this movement and am surprised how some conductors don't
realise this and bring it out as Gatti does. At times you even have the
impression he may be sending the piece up, but I think it can stand it. To
counterbalance this the "out-of-tune" violin solo sounds really sinister
and a special word of praise is due to the principal horn too.
In the slow movement there is an intensity in the hushed pianissimi that
gets swept away by a remarkably muscular attack in the climaxes. Gatti's
overall tempo is not so slow you lose any idea of where the music is going
either. At the very start there is a serene, withdrawn quality to the playing
of the strings matched against a very mournful oboe. This movement is a complex
theme and variations and Gatti seems well aware of this in his grasp of tempo
relationships, nowhere better illustrated than in the passage between bars
222 and 282 in the course of which Mahler marks four succeeding increases
in tempo. These tempo "steps-up" ("agogic" in Floros's estimation) find him
in total control of the music and is most impressive. The climax of the movement,
the climax of the entire work, in fact - the hurling open of the gates
to heaven, timpani crashing out a theme hitherto heard only softly on a tolling
harp earlier in the movement - is a liberating moment under Gatti, not heavy
or oppressive as it can sometimes sound.
Ruth Ziesak's warmth in the fourth movement is an asset, even at the extremes
of tempi her conductor maintains in the course of her contribution, bells
jangling in the quick interludes. Maybe a smaller, more childlike, voice
is needed here, but there are very few who can deliver this. Why no one has
ever yet thought of using a girl chorister in this movement, I have no idea.
I was especially pleased to hear Gatti observing no pause of any kind between
this and the preceding movement. It might seem a small point, but on such
small points a conductor's general attitude can sometimes be judged. There
is no doubt this decision knits the last movement much more into the structure
of the whole since it can sometimes sound, especially to a newcomer, as if
it has been tacked on as an afterthought whereas we know the reverse was
the case. Mahler composed this movement first, originally as finale to the
Third Symphony, and the other three movements gain when played as if they
lead up to it as confirmation that what the words being sung describe - the
special qualities of a child's view of what follows death - should be the
paramount image taken away from this symphony.
Couplings in recordings of this work are rare, so on a full-priced release
it's good to find four of Mahler's early songs in the clever orchestrations
by Colin and David Matthews. They are more self-effacing than Luciano Berio,
for example, who has also had a go at orchestrating them in the past. Much
more than make-weights, "Nich widersehen !" is especially impressive with
a familiar Mahlerian funeral tread instilling itself into the mind, and "Ablosung
im Sommer !" recalling the Third Symphony third movement where it later
re-appeared in orchestral guise.
The playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is exemplary in all departments.
There are some really spiky woodwinds that are well caught by the spacious,
but still sharp, sound. Especially in the fourth movement of the symphony
where Gatti doesn't forget the animals depicted in the accompaniment.
An enjoyable disc with new things to say, even in such well-trodden paths
See a comparative review of the recordings
of this symphony