Top Ear

Levine’s Cool Mahler Fourth

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Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Jeremy Lee writes

Mahler’s fourth symphony is often regarded as the least troubled of his nine completed symphonies, and its relatively less harsh demands on the performers, smaller orchestral size required and a relatively shorter length than his other symphonies makes it a very popular work in performance or on record. James Levine recorded this work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) when he was in his twenties for RCA and has now been released in this present “Classic Library” incarnation.

From first hearing, it is evident that Levine has rejected sentimentality in favor of coolness and crispness, resulting in what may be the coolest rendition of any Mahler symphony I’ve ever heard. The first movement is very frosty and precise, with an air of luminosity to it, and the ländler as sinister as any with an icy violin solo. Even the adagio is halcyon and disimpassioned instead of bathetic, and the climatic “opening of heavenly gates” exciting instead of fervid. Judith Blegen’s crystal-clear tone in the last movement rounds the symphony off to a most pacific conclusion. However, Levine’s steel-edged precision and some beautiful playing from the Chicagoans–how unabashedly the violins do their glissandos!–make this performance well worth hearing and as a valid interpretative contrast to warmer and more emotional performances such as Karajan’s.

If there was a criticism of this release, it would be the recorded sound. The tone of the strings are just way too bright, which spoils things in the third movement somewhat, and the closely-miked violin solo and harp in the second movement make up for an overly artificial listening experience. This lack of sonic warmth adds more to my impression of the “coolness” of the performance.

So, if you like your Mahler Fourth crisp and cold, this one’s for you, and would serve a great antipode for those who have other performances of the work already. Recommended.

[Leonard’s footnotes]

Some early digital recordings from RCA have the problem of stressing too much on surface brilliance that, however well-balanced, they sound shrill and brittle. Here, two most prominent defects lie in the violins and the woodwinds: the violins suffer the most and the woodwinds lack refinement (not solely due to the recording quality, though). Levine’s Brahms Requiem, reissued on the same series as this Mahler Fourth, is similarly inflicted but much less severely. What makes Levine’s Fourth stand out is more its youthfulness and freshness than its precision and clarity – Szell and Reiner provide the latter attributes in much better sound and with overall superior interpretative touches. Generally speaking then, while having its own attraction, this is not a first choice for Mahler Fourth.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 4
  • Performers:  James Levine/Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Judith Blegen (soprano)
  • Label:  RCA 82876-59413-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total Playing Time:  57:51

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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