Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Maureen McKay, soprano; Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Artek AR-0052-2.

The Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is today probably the composer's most-popular symphony, and, thanks to a revival of the composer's work in the Fifties and Sixties, one of the world's most-popular pieces of classical music. One can understand why: Along with the First, it's the shortest of the symphonies Mahler wrote (even though it's about an hour long); it's scored lightly, making for a most-transparent sound; and it features some lovely, lilting melodies envisioning Man's glimpses of heaven. How can it miss?

Under Maestro Gerard Schwarz, the first movement is sweet and lyrical, with a pleasantly flowing gait, even though the conductor tends to speed up and slow down more suddenly than he needs to. This more-than-flexible rubato, combined with Schwarz creating some pronounced dynamic contrasts, adds a degree of admitted excitement to the proceedings, but one could argue that the music doesn't really need it. Mahler's markings indicate "deliberate and leisurely," and the movement should convey a feeling of simplicity, which Schwarz misses to some small degree.

In the second movement, also marked with "leisurely motion," Schwarz takes Mahler more at his word. It's not a particularly big change of tempo from the preceding movement, but the tone changes considerably. It's now more shrill, introducing us to death and the devil. Mahler never meant the music to be scary, just a little odd, and it's here that Schwarz is at his best, molding a slightly sinister yet reassuring mood.

The third movement Adagio, marked "peacefully," is among Mahler's most heartfelt, yet Schwarz draws it out perhaps more than necessary, overly relying on the sentimentality of the piece.

Then, we come to the fourth and final movement, a vision of heaven as expressed in one of Mahler's favorite folk poems from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Child's Wonderful Horn," or cornucopia of plenty). Soprano Maureen McKay sings the youth's part most affectively, with, in the composer's words, "childlike, serene expression, always without parody"; and Schwarz brings the symphony to a joyous conclusion. My only quibble here is that the recurring sleigh bells, returning from the first movement, burst forth rather vigorously and tend to distract from the serenity of the music.

Artek recorded the sound live at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, and although I have never been too keen on live recordings, this one is quite good, with an especially nice sense of orchestral depth. Be aware, however, that the engineers miked the orchestra at a moderate distance, a little more distant than they would have miked the group in a studio, resulting in an occasionally recessed sound.

Thankfully, there is very little audience noise involved, with the exception of a few strange thumps and bumps in the background. The recording also displays a wide stereo spread and fairly clean delineation. A final quibble, though: The orchestra tends at times almost to swamp the soloist in the final movement.

For me Schwarz fills his performance of the Mahler Fourth with a few too many flourishes and overstatements. While the reading is certainly lively and vital, it does not persuade me that this is how Mahler intended his symphony to sound. I prefer the more straightforward approaches of Bernard Haitink in his second, analogue Concertgebouw recording (Philips) and George Szell in his Cleveland rendition (Sony).


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa