Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Rosemary Joshua, soprano; Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre des Champs-Elysees. PHI LPH001.

When Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 4, neither the critics nor the public accepted it very well. That may come as a surprise to many of us today because it's such a familiar work in the catalogue, maybe Mahler's most popular piece of music. If I had to guess why the Fourth has become so favored over the years, I'd say it's because the work is so accessible, so tuneful, and so mature. Just as important, the music is big yet intimate, making recordings of it ideal for audiophile playback in the home. Plus, listeners seem to appreciate the contrasts in the music, going from grand, eloquent sections to quiet, personal passages, from deadly serious to mischievously satiric. There is no doubt that a lot of folks have discovered Mahler's music is one heck of a great way to enjoy themselves and show off their stereo system. In any case, Mahler is back yet again, this time from maestro Philippe Herreweghe and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees.

As he had done in his first three symphonies, Mahler clearly intended his Fourth to mean something more than absolute, nonrepresentational music, and although he left no descriptive program, he did provide enough specific instructions for each movement that people get the idea. One of his followers, conductor Bruno Walter, had this to say about the symphony: "In the Fourth, a joyous dream of happiness and of eternal life promises him, and us also, that we have been saved."

The first movement, which Mahler marks as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," begins playfully and hopefully with the jingling of sleigh bells. The second movement introduces Death into the scene, with a vaguely sinister violin motive. The slow, third-movement Adagio, marked "peacefully," is a kind of respite from the oddities of Mr. Death in the previous section. And the fourth and final movement is Mahler's vision of heaven and salvation as exemplified in the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler loved. Here, the composer wanted the movement to sound so unaffected he insisted upon the soprano's part being sung with "child-like bright expression, always without parody."

The interesting feature about this new recording from Herreweghe is that his orchestra plays on period instruments. Nowadays, we find this treatment commonplace for eighteenth and nineteenth-century works, but Mahler premiered the Fourth Symphony in 1901, and because it never really caught on until later in the twentieth century, we've become used to hearing it played with modern orchestras. Yet Herreweghe's approach has merit, and his gut strings are in no way harsh, even though they tend to dominate the proceedings more than in a contemporary orchestra where the winds and brass have a stronger role. Nevertheless, the percussion section plays an important part in the sound and, while the percussion never overpower the other instruments, they are definitely in the forefront of the activity with their distinctly period flavor.

Anyway, Herreweghe's performance itself is convincingly unmannered, fluent and fluid, with an always graceful forward momentum, never rushed. Nor does the conductor ever fall into the throes of gaudy Romanticism, even in the serenity of the third movement, which simply floats lightly above our heads. Indeed, this may be the most-tranquil reading of the slow movement on record (though not the slowest by any means), making the big climactic segment all the more startling for its juxtaposition. Finally, the piece closes with soprano Rosemary Joshua singing the angelic part in an appropriately "child-like" manner without especially seeming "child like." Herreweghe's interpretation is remarkably gentle and one that with its period instruments offers a different, colorful, and rewarding approach to an old warhorse.

Recorded in Grenoble, France, in 2010 for Herreweghe's own, newly formed PHI label, the sound immediately strikes one as rich, lush, and ultrasmooth. Its warmth makes for a most-pleasant and realistic listening experience, although the soft, ambient bloom does tend to obscure some inner detailing. So, no, while the sonics are certainly natural sounding, they aren't as transparent as on a few competing recordings. Then, too, orchestral depth and overall dynamics are only moderate, which is still all right since the music and the performance are mostly relaxed and easygoing in any case.

Of minor note: The booklet lists the final movement at 6:41 minutes. It isn't; it's 8:41 minutes and actually more conventional in its pacing than the incorrect timing suggests. Don't be afraid that Herreweghe is trying to race through anything.

JJP

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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa