Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Dorothea Roschmann, soprano; Mariss Jansons, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. RCO Live RCO15004.

This disc interested me not because I thought the world needed yet another recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony (I mean, we only have about 800 of them already, and one can never have enough) but because I was curious about the newly recorded sound. The Concertgebouw hall and orchestra have long been among my favorite venues and ensembles, and I wondered if they sounded as good as ever, especially as this new release sports a live SACD recording. Is the latest up-the-minute digital technology any better than what we've heard in the past? The answer is a resounding "Who knows?" (Or for non-audiophile types, "Who cares?") The performance and sound are both up to snuff, and certainly the orchestra remains among the most glorious in the world. Yet, do they sound any better than what we already have? Not really.

As I'm sure you know, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in C Major in 1901, but not everybody liked it. Today, however, it's probably Mahler's most popular work. Modern audiences seem to find it accessible, tuneful, and mature. Then, too, while the music is big scale, it also feels quite intimate, and listeners appreciate the music's contrasts going from grand, eloquent sections to quiet, personal ones, from deadly serious passages to mischievously satiric ones. In other words, it has a lot to offer, particularly to audiophiles because the piece uses a huge orchestra, with plenty of room to show off one's playback system.

Anyway, Mahler appears to have intended his Fourth Symphony as something more than absolute, nonrepresentational music, and even though he didn't leave a detailed program for it, he did leave enough specific directions for each movement to give people an idea of what the music was all about. One of the composer's followers, conductor Bruno Walter, said of the symphony: "In the Fourth, a joyous dream of happiness and of eternal life promises him, and us also, that we have been saved."

Mahler marks the first movement as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," and he begins it playfully with the jingling of sleigh bells, an effect that also provides a positive sign of youthful hope. In the second movement, Mahler introduces Death, using a vaguely sinister violin motif. He marks the slow, third-movement Adagio as "peacefully," and it is a kind of respite from the oddities of Mr. Death in the preceding section. In the fourth and final movement, Mahler gives us his vision of heaven and salvation 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 loved. Here, the composer wanted the movement to sound so unaffected he insisted upon a soprano's part sung with "child-like bright expression, always without parody."

Mariss Jansons
So, how does Maestro Mariss Jansons and his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra handle all of this? Pretty well, if a little overly fussy for my taste.

Jansons maintains a steady, fairly well judged tempo throughout the first movement, although he doesn't seem quite as smoothly flowing as the conductors of several other favorites of mine, including Bernard Haitink (Philips), George Szell (HDTT or Sony), Fritz Reiner (JVC or RCA), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Lorin Maazel (Sony), Herbert von Karajan (DG), Antoni Wit (Naxos), Simon Rattle (EMI), and Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), to name a few. Jansons seems to emphasize the contrasts more than other conductors and linger momentarily over some points while scurrying through others. It's not at all distracting or disconcerting, just a little more fastidious than probably necessary.

In the second movement Jansons tends to be a tad more perfunctory than Mahler probably meant a conductor to be. He seems not to delight so much in the eccentricities of the music but rather gloss over them. Of course, that's just the impression I get, and other listeners will no doubt appreciate the maestro's nuanced approach to the middle section in particular.

The Adagio is hauntingly beautiful, and unlike a few conductors who take it so slowly it loses any sense of forward momentum, Jansons keeps the music light and refreshing. It's a lovely interlude.

Dorothea Roschmann's contribution to the finale didn't quite work for me. Although she projects a fine soprano voice, it doesn't exactly display all the childlike qualities I associate with this part. Nor is the conductor's rather insistent accompaniment as sublime as I'd have preferred. Nevertheless, the whole project comes across efficiently, and my qualms are minor. Besides, it's hard to argue with the splendid playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. They make everything sound good.

Producer and engineer Everett Porter made the 96 kHz recording live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in February 2015, recording the music for hybrid 5-channel/2-channel SACD/CD playback. I listened to the 2-channel SACD layer.

However, before listening to this live recording, I listened to a few minutes of one of my favorite Mahler Fourths, the 1983 Philips digital release with Bernard Haitink, Roberta Alexander, and this very same Concertgebouw Orchestra. Obviously, I was curious to see what differences there might be in the sound after some thirty-two years of audio evolution.

What I found was that there wasn't a whole lot of improvement in sound, despite the SACD processing. Whereas the older recording sounds warm, ambient, spacious, and rich, the newer one is closer and slightly harder, with less of a feeling for the venue. Still, the SACD sound is dynamic and well detailed, with a modest sense of orchestral depth (though no match for the older recording in this regard). Fortunately, it isn't as bright or forward as many live recordings, and it retains a touch of warmth. While I could have done without the occasional grunts and heavy breathing of the audience, at least the engineers save us the grief of any closing applause, and the music's final note fades smoothly and quietly into the distance.

Incidental note: Either by accident or by intent, RCO Live omit any identification of the symphony from the disc itself. The SACD bears only the words "RCO Live" on it; no symphony number, no conductor or orchestra; no record number. I suggest owners of the disc keep it safely in its case when not in the player, or one could easily lose track of what it is. Of course, a marking pen might also help, but who wants to deface a disc?


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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