MAHLER Symphony No 4 – Sinopoli
“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 Orchestra 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. 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.