Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Judith Raskin, soprano; George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra. HDTT HDCD158.

HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is the company that gives us CD recordings and downloads taken from older, commercially available tapes. In the case of the several HDTT discs I've reviewed so far, they all sounded extremely good, but I had never had an equivalent CD with which to compare them. Until now. With the George Szell recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 4, I had the latest copy of it on Sony compact disc and compared it side by side with the HDTT version in separate machines. I'll comment on the results a few paragraphs below. But first, the music.

In the opening movement of the Fourth, which Mahler marks as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," or "moderately, not rushed," Szell adopts a deliberately neutral tempo, just as the composer requested, not too fast, not too slow. Bruno Walter, the conductor who probably helped popularize Mahler as much as anybody, wrote of the Fourth Symphony that Mahler "assures himself and us of a sheltered security in the sublime and serene dream of a heavenly life." Szell does exactly that, only in addition to a sweet, affectionate interpretation, we get probably the most-precise treatment of the text ever heard. Szell clarifies every note, and, thanks to the new remastering, you can actually hear every note.

The second movement, a kind of bittersweet Scherzo, introduces us to Death, with a faintly sinister violin theme. It's never really threatening; it's more playful than ominous, but it sounds appropriately spooky and eerie. Again, the exactness of Szell's phrasing is like clockwork, yet it never disturbs the atmosphere by being too cold or distant. Indeed, by clarifying the music, Szell makes it all the more disturbing.

It is only in the slow, third-movement Adagio, marked "peacefully, somewhat slowly," that Szell's carefully prepared, calculated approach sounds a touch too mechanical. This section should be a moment of repose after the singularly odd second movement, and it still is. Szell doesn't actually spoil the serenity of the mood; he just doesn't quite reach into the heart of the music as deeply as some other conductors do.

However, in the finale--Mahler's vision of heaven as exemplified by the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler so favored--Szell is back in form. Mahler insisted this movement sound so unaffected he marked the soprano's part as "child-like bright expression, always without parody" and taken "very comfortably." With Szell it features the angelic voice of Judith Raskin, which seems ideally suited to the innocence of the music at this point. Although Szell's tempo may be a tad on the slow side, the whole last movement comes off as beautifully and delicately as one could imagine.

Now, about the sound. HDTT transferred the music from a Columbia 4-track tape, which they say comes from "circa 1963." My copy of the Sony/Columbia CD says Columbia recorded it in October, 1965. Whatever. In comparing the two CD's, one in a Sony ES player, the other in a Philips player, the easiest way to describe the differences is to say that when switching to the Sony/Columbia disc, it is like throwing a blanket over the speakers. The Sony/Columbia disc doesn't sound all that bad, mind you, if listened to in isolation. It's when you put it up against the more-transparent HDTT rendering that it suddenly doesn't seem so great. The HDTT transfer sounds cleaner, clearer, and more dynamic, displaying more stage depth along the way.

Of course, some listeners will prefer the warmer, mellower but distinctly more veiled sound of the Sony/Columbia product, finding the newer HDTT transfer a little too bright or forward. Indeed, the Wife-O-Meter found just such a concern, saying the Sony disc sounded more soothing to her. But I had no such issue. I thought the HDTT transfer open, airy, lucid, and highly satisfying, which should make it a delight for music lovers and audiophiles alike.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at


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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