Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, Berg: Sieben Fruhe Lieder. Renee Fleming; Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0005759-02.

Maestro Claudio Abbado has been cultivating a friendship with the music of Gustav Mahler for many years, and his latest recording of the Fourth Symphony shows what he has gleaned from years of experience with the subject matter. However, this doesn't necessarily mean you're going to like what you hear.

If you're familiar with Abbado the Mahlerian, you'll know he is no namby-pamby. His Mahler is vigorous and sometimes unrelenting, which is fine because Mahler filled his music, especially his symphonies, with so many ups and downs, subtilties and grotesqueries, tranquil moments and parodic ones, that it lends itself to any number of interpretations. Here, the conductor continues the kind of tear he was on in his reading of the Seventh Symphony, always thrusting forward.

The thing is, you might find Abbado's approach more than a little disconcerting when applied to Mahler's most gentle and amiable work. He starts the Fourth Symphony with an opening movement that is anything but gentle or amiable, sounding more gruff than usual through a series of fits and starts. This is OK if you think of the whole symphony as simply leading up to the serenity of the heavenly Finale, and then the contrast seems to fit. But that opening sleigh ride may portend tough sledding ahead for listeners not used to Abbado's somewhat brusque ways.

The Scherzo and Adagio go by without incident, the former being bizarre enough not to show much damage and the latter sounding quite lovely. The Finale, though, the celestial conclusion, can be downright jarring in Abbado's hands, and through no fault of Renee Fleming. It's just that the conductor produces so many dramatic change-ups, you'd think he was pitching for the White Sox.

I wouldn't exactly call this a first choice among alternative versions of the Fourth Symphony, but it is a fascinating study of what a conductor can do with the work. While for me, Abbado has turned a generally charming piece of music into a generally charmless one, the conductor may be exactly what other listeners have been waiting for. The Berg songs, as brief as they are, make an attractive and appropriate coupling.

The DG audio is similar to what we're hearing lately from many conductors and orchestras, namely, live sonics. DG made the recording in Berlin over several days in May of 2005 before a live audience. Thankfully, the audience is so quiet you'd never know they were there. The only time we hear from them is their applause at the very end of the album--at the end of Berg songs--and then the applause has a track of its own that one can program out.

As for the actual sound, the performances are miked at a slightly closer distance than we usually hear in a live setting (although closer than what might be normal in a studio), and the result is a highly realistic acoustic in terms of tonal balance and orchestral depth. The downside is that the high treble appears somewhat muted and there seems to be a small mid-treble rise; worse, there is a very slight veil over the proceedings. Additionally, the dynamics are so wide that the softest notes are practically inaudible and the loudest passages can be overwhelming. Can't win.


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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