The Gramophone Choice
Juliane Banse sop
Staatskapelle Dresden / Giuseppe Sinopoli
Profil PH07047 (60’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
‘Glorious’ and ‘sublime’ were among the epithets applied to the playing of Dresden’s ‘Royal Chapel’ ensemble when Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was first performed in the city in 1908. Both epithets could be applied to the playing on this latter-day realisation under Giuseppe Sinopoli. People obsess about the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics but, under the right leadership, the Dresden orchestra, which Sinopoli led from 1992 until his death at the age of 54 nine years later, can surpass either with its flawless ensemble and understated eloquence. There isn’t an ugly note or gratuitously unpleasant sound in the Scherzo, yet no jot of the music’s wit, grace and sinister humour is lost. After which, the playing of the slow movement really is a glimpse of musical heaven on earth, the string-playing glowing like old gold.
Sinopoli made a studio recording of the Fourth with the Philharmonia in the early 1990s. The Dresden reading is essentially unchanged but its realisation is in a different league. The start may seem unduly brisk but a series of exquisitely shaped transitions take us into calmer waters and a succession of ever more enchanted landscapes where the performance reveals its essentially introspective side. Some might think it too introspective in those espressivo interludes where the pulse marginally hangs fire.
In the finale’s calm opening and meditative close Sinopoli takes a very slow tempo indeed, way below the one Mahler himself adopts on his 1905 piano roll. Lorin Maazel takes a similar tempo in his celebrated 1984 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (Sony Classical – see below). He, though, has Kathleen Battle, a brighter-voiced, less lustrous-sounding soloist than Sinopoli’s excellent Juliane Banse. He also guards against somnolence by sharper pointing of the music’s barcarolle-like rhythm. Not that straight comparisons are really in order here. Orchestrally, this is archive gold. It is also a happy reminder of a conductor whose prodigious intellect and idiosyncratic ways could never entirely mask the fact that he was a good man and a wonderful musician.
Kathleen Battle sop Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Lorin Maazel
Sony Classical SMK39072 (75‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
The pick of Maazel’s 1980s cycle. Throughout it’s a very inward-looking performance, and in saying that one merely points to the fact that it is a very, very Viennese performance; in Vienna, Mahler’s Vienna or Maazel’s, introspection is an unavoidable condition of being. Battle is simply perfect in the last movement.
Miah Persson sop
Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCSSA26109 (57’ · DDD/DSD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
What no one will deny is the amazing unanimity and precision of the playing here and the superlative quality of the sound engineering. But how to read a work that can feel brittle as well as heart-warming and graceful? A performance of countless imaginative touches on an exceptional hybrid SACD.
Sarah Fox sop
Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras
Signum SIGCD219 (57’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
This Fourth, captured live in 2006, is characteristically forthright. Should the opening strike you as unduly brusque, it is certainly of a piece with the reading as a whole. The well-prepared Philharmonia strings are lean and pristine throughout, albeit with no shortage of portamento, the woodwind and brass notably perky when it comes to illuminating the rustic minutiae of Mahler’s invention. There is affection as well as briskness in the finale too, where Sarah Fox’s quick, silvery vibrato comes across with blessed naturalness. Mackerras and his team are always worth hearing even when, as is usual with this series, the packaging is curiously drab, the notes only so-so.
Symphony No 4 (arr Stein)
Kate Royal sop
Manchester Camerata / Douglas Boyd
Avie AV2069 (56’ · DDD · T/t). Recorded live. Buy from Amazon
Erwin Stein’s reduction, for solo string quintet (including double bass), flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, piano, harmonium and percussion, was prepared at a time when even the members of Arnold Schoenberg’s immediate circle had limited access to the real thing. Even today, some find the transcription focuses the mind wonderfully on the music’s contrapuntal essence, others that it is intrinsically a period piece, more redolent of the palm court. Suffice to say that Douglas Boyd and his group offer a performance that is unfailingly fresh and alert.
Andrew Keener’s production is the crispest, most immediate the score has received on disc. Out goes evocative distancing. In comes the tangible wheeze of the harmonium, the respiration of sundry woodwind players and the low-level vocalising of Boyd himself.
Douglas Boyd’s Mahler may feel overly straightforward but he knows the territory, having directed Schoenberg’s reduction of Das Lied as well as Mahler’s own string quartet arrangements in Manchester. He has further aces up his sleeve: the helpful booklet-notes by Philip Borg Wheeler, the participation of Kate Royal, fresh-voiced soprano winner of the 2004 Kathleen Ferrier competition and, on CD, the highly competitive price.