Jeremy Lee writes
“They don’t like Mahler,” Lorin Maazel was reported as saying, and he really seemed to have a point, because the Vienna Philharmonic by reputation was never a really willing Mahler orchestra, legendary though some of their Mahler recordings were. (Even Bernstein had to resort to browbeating to make the orchestra realize Mahler’s emotional extremes.) This and Maazel’s overly self-conscious approach to most of the works contributes to the widely-held opinion that most of his Mahler is not great, and that the only reason why one would want his complete Mahler set would be because of the heavenly playing and sound of the Vienna Philharmonic–his Fifth is a case in point (lugubrious interpretation, but, oh, the Viennese). But sometimes even the playing turns wrong, and–oh dear–disasters like the Third appear. (Read my review here.)
What a surprise, then, to find his Fourth so fresh and idiomatic. Maazel’s self-consciousness still applies in his approach to this symphony (as exemplified, for example, in the 11-minute finale, though Karajan’s is similar), but it’s been toned down quite significantly, and works surprisingly well in this (arguably) most untroubled of Mahler’s symphonies. The first movement is light and cheerily, with exuberance aplenty and some magnificent solo work from the horn, but things really start to get terrifically interesting in the second movement, where the solo violin delivers one of the sliest impersonations of the Devil’s fiddle on disc. Nowhere else will you hear the special effects in the winds and strings delivered so wittily, or the wide range of dynamics (changing so frequently and suddenly, too) executed to such a literal degree: fortissimos have an incisive zing, while pianissmos are ethereal whispers.
From the third movement on, things just get better and better. The hushed string opening is relaxed and cantando enough, with the upholstered Viennese string sound plush and gorgeous as always, but what’s most striking is how Maazel allows Mahler’s string portamenti to be heard so unabashedly–this from the Vienna Philharmonic!–resulting in some of the most thrilling Mahler playing I’ve ever heard. Check out 7 bars before figure 3 and 3 bars after figure 7 and tell me where on earth you have heard such anguish from the massive glissandos down to the tonic, and, in the latter instance, such a roaring crescendo roll on the timpani! The latter variations are as playful as anyone could wish for (Levine is even gayer here but not by a great margin), leading to a cataclysmically shattering climax, with the oft-hidden percussion and brass of the Vienna Philharmonic pealing their hearts out.
Then there’s the finale, marked “Sehr behaglich” (very leisurely), with Maazel observing this to the utmost degree, thus giving us one of the most relaxed fourth movements on disc–and that’s not only pace-wise. Even the sections recalling the first movement seem like brief recollections instead of literal reiterations. But the best thing of all here has to be the participation of Kathleen Battle, whose exquisite silvery tone and crystal-clear pronunciation make wonders with the vocal part. She doesn’t even need to resort to the tasteless childlike pouts and imitations of a Fleming: her truly angelic voice and delivery speaks for herself.
And when the music slips into E major, the harps and basses tolling discreetly in the background, and Mahler writes “sehr zart und geheimnisvoll bis zum Schluss” (very tender and mysterious to the end), Maazel relaxes the pace even further, the exceptionally hushed violins and clarinets introduce their themes respectively, Battle’s line creeps in with the words “Kein Musik ist ja”…and the effect is of the most transcendent levels of stillness one can ever imagine. No music is there on earth which may be compared with ours. It’s ravishing, almost trance-like, with the harp’s perfect fifth resonating so heavenly with Battle’s “ja”. I was completely awestruck when I first heard it, and even now, having heard it a zillion times later, I still put down whatever I am doing and sit as still as possible to prepare for that moment. And I have always been touched.
Of course, I could say that moment in the finale is worth the price of the disc, and while it certainly is, the fact is that this performance is so much more than that–it is a performance that would win over even the most unfeeling of hearts, and could even make a convert or two. I’ve been impressed before, but I surely haven’t been as impressed as I was hearing this, and the fact that it’s now out of print is truly regrettable. It’s great Mahler, and my personal favorite Fourth, but more than that, it’s truly great music. And praise can’t get higher than that.
- Album name: Mahler: Symphony No. 4
- Performers: Kathleen Battle (soprano); Lorin Maazel (conductor); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
- Label: CBS MDK 44908
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 60:56