Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 13 - May, 2000

Jason Serinus




"Mahler Symphony No. 4: Berg Seven Early Songs"

Barbara Bonny, Soprano; Royal Contertgebouw Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly

Decca; 289-466-720-2

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"Mahler Symphonie No. 4"

Juliane Banse, Soprano; Cleveland Orchestra; Pierre Boulez

Deutsche Grammophon; 289-463-257-2

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"Mahler Symphony No. 4"

Lisa della Casa, Soprano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner

RCA Victor Living Stereo; 09026-63533-2

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No less than three versions of Mahler’s immensely likable, potentially transporting Fourth Symphony have been released in the last few months. Two are modern, digital issues, the third a digital remastering of a 1958 Living Stereo recording. Each differs so greatly from the others in both execution and sound as to create, for this listener at least, almost as much wonder as does the magical universe painted by Mahler himself.

Completed in 1901, the four-movement Mahler Fourth is built around its concluding vocal movement, written nine years before the other three. Entitled Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), this movement’s text derives from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) poetry anthology of Armin and Brentano. (Mahler also drew texts for the vocal movements of his Second and Third Symphonies, as well as his Das Knaben Wunderhorn song cycle, from this anthology.) The poem presents an ascended child’s vision of Christian paradise -- a decidedly non-vegetarian, belly-stuffed heaven filled with saints, merriment, music, joy, and peace. The music which gives this vision life seems derived from an inspiration that only an angelic visitation might impart.

Though the Fourth, like many of Mahler’s works, concerns itself with issues of life, death, and the beyond, the composer’s touch is here far more delightful than tragic. The symphony’s mostly flowing opening movement, complete with sleigh bells, seems reminiscent of a winter scene. Even when death does its dance, its step is unusually light, gliding over the surface of pain like a sleigh over snow. The second movement, lasting under ten minutes in length, is mostly flowing and peaceful. The third, which features an extended, serene adagio that touches the heart, treads an only occasionally ominous path through the death experience and out to the heavenly other side. Once there, the concluding movement imparts the visions, sounds, and feel of paradise.

For a performance of this symphony to succeed, the final verse of the final movement  – 

          On earth there is no music that can be compared to ours…

          The angelic voices lift up the spirits

          So that everything awakens in joy.

–  must be sung in a manner so pure and innocent as to leave the listener filled with a profound sense of wonder and peace. Conductor, soloist, and instrumentalists alike must feel so at one with Mahler’s heaven that listeners experience themselves suspended in the transcendent luminosity of paradise.

The best of the three performances under consideration, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, comes closest to conveying the magical essence of Mahler’s ride through life, death, and beyond. It also has the best digital sound. Alas, Chailly’s tempi frequently feel too genial, at times bordering on the ponderous. The first movement in particular feels sluggish, not because it is too slow, but because it lacks the Viennese lilt which makes this music so extraordinary. The second, too, isn’t light enough. The third is quite lovely, the most successful movement of this performance. As for the fourth, Chailly’s soloist, the superb Barbara Bonney, could have been ideal, but she unfortunately chooses to articulate some of the final stanza’s words in a manner that seems precious rather than simple. She also occasionally opens her voice too much, making her sound more like a mature woman than an innocent child. None of this is helped by Chailly’s decision to play the orchestral interludes between verses in a manner both jarring and rushed.

Pierre Boulez is now close to completing his Mahler cycle for DG. If this performance is any indication, the man doesn’t have a clue. No lingering over emotions here. Not even a sense of where Mahler is coming from. There was not a single movement of this reading that I was willing to sit through. The first begins at such a fast clip that it feels less like horses pulling a sleigh than a locomotive plowing through a field of notes. I did not find the music breathing at all. Nor could I find any magic in the start of the second movement. The third movement, too, refused to sink into Mahler’s feeling world. (My friend Andy, a devoted Mahler aficionado who tells me that this third movement can reduce him to tears, characterized Boulez’s conducting of these 20 minutes “perfunctory.”) As for the conclusion, not only is it a rushed, full minute shorter than Chailly’s, but it features a somewhat tremulous, young soprano whom Boulez does not allow to step anywhere close to paradise. The sound, too, does not take one there. The bass is not very good, with frequent visits to the polarity switch on my Theta Gen. VA DAC failing to affect an improvement.

The 1958 Reiner Living Stereo version is quite interesting, both sonically and musically. The miking (probably just two or three) is quite close. While this imparts a huge amount of orchestral color, far surpassing the instrumental color of all the other versions discussed herein – the cellos and basses are especially compelling – this color is not accompanied by an equal measure of hall reverberation. One gets very little sense of the vibrant sound of this music as performed in a huge space. Cymbals sound somewhat thin, as does some of the percussion, and there is an occasional instrumental sound that stands way out because of the close miking. While the instrumental color, so important in Mahler, is extraordinary – on a par with the recently-reviewed Reference Recording Domenic Argento disc –  this is not among the most sonically successful of the legendary Living Stereo releases.

As for Reiner’s performance, which the Penguin Guide calls “wayward,” the first movement features many changes of tempi and imaginative touches. The storm in this movement is quite convincing, but the movement’s final recapitulation misses some of the “largeness” of the music. The second movement, to these ears, doesn’t settle in enough, while the third, far superior to the Boulez, still doesn’t move me. Reiner adopts a perfect, gentle pace for the final movement, and Lisa della Casa makes many lovely sounds. When she sings of the oxen, for example, Reiner humorously highlights the “oxen sounds” of the horns like no other conductor discussed in this review. He also ends each of the four vocal stanzas perfectly, his orchestral transition into the final heavenly stanza quite beautiful. Della Casa sings a few wrong words here, and in general sounds more like a beautifully-voiced grown-up than an innocent child. Taken as a whole, the performance seems more successful in conveying details than the larger conception of things. As good as many elements are, I do not sense a unified vision of the work. 

By comparison, George Szell, in his classic 1978 analogue recording with the Cleveland Orchestra (digitally remastered on a bargain price Sony Essential Classics SBK 46535), is light on his feet. Far more playful when the music calls for it, Szell is a master at employing flexible tempi and clear articulation to bring Mahler’s music to life. The music continually breathes life, with shifting tempi and dynamics that seem “just right.” Though the sound is not on a par with the Chailly or Reiner, it is Szell who has this music in his blood.

Szell’s soloist, the late Judith Raskin, is perfectly accompanied. If she seems a bit too mature and full-voiced in the song’s first three stanzas, her finale verse conveys an extraordinary, otherworldly grace that transcends criticism. Of all the versions visited herein, the Szell/Raskin/Cleveland performance succeeds most in conveying the wealth of feeling, nuance and emotion that flow from Mahler’s magical notes into the listener’s heart.

One more performance must be discussed, that of Lorin Maazel conducting Kathleen Battle and the Vienna Philharmonic. I have the original 1984 digital pressing, whose wide soundstage but somewhat washed out, distant sound is hopefully improved in the 1989 Sony mid-price reissue I have not auditioned. Regardless of sonics, I have yet to hear a soprano whose fourth movement artistry equals Kathleen Battle’s mixture of simplicity, beauty, and impeccable phrasing. Her performance is extraordinary. While I at times wish that Maazel had led the orchestra a bit faster, his interpretation on the whole is quite convincing. Like Szell and Raskin, Maazel and Battle are inside this music. Battle sounds so perfectly ensconced in heaven that I know that if my final breath is filled with the feeling she imparts to her song, both myself and everyone around me will be at peace. This is a performance that all lovers of this symphony and of great vocalism will cherish.

Chailly’s Decca recording also features Barbara Bonney in the Seven Early Songs of Alban Berg. Their performance is, in a word, fabulous. Kudos to performers and label alike for including this generous gift.

Alban Berg, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, wrote these seven songs between 1905 and 1908, scoring them for piano accompaniment. The writing reflects his movement away from tonality and towards a new 12-tone musical language. Addressing them to his future wife, the composer drenched the songs in a lyrical sensuality, simultaneously strange, disturbing, and captivatingly beautiful.

Berg revised and orchestrated these Seven Early Songs in 1928, not long after his major twelve-tone opera of inequality, suffering, and cruelty, Wozzeck, had made its unforgettable mark. I find his orchestral revision far more effective than the piano version, especially when sung by the estimable Barbara Bonney. The soprano is in gorgeous voice, easily transitioning from warm, easily produced, youthful tones of radiant purity, to the full-voiced, vibrato-enriched sounds of mature womanhood. The blend of grown-up sensuality and mysticism that pervades these early songs seems to speak to and through both Bonney and Chailly in a far more elemental way than does Mahler’s more direct emotional simplicity. As in the Chailly’s successful recording of Zemlinsky’s 1922 Lyrische Symphonie, the conductor here seems totally in his element. A great performance in great sound, and reason aplenty to buy this disc.

 - Jason Serinus -


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