Mahler: Symphony No. 4

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: RCO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler
WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Royal Concertebouw Orchestra/
Bernard Haitink

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CATALOGUE NO: 07003 (hybrid CD/SACD)
At times the sheer voluptuous beauty of this performance simply flattens all attempts at critical objectivity. Haitink understands the ebb and flow of tempo, and how colours blend or stand out like no other modern conductor. Everything seems to happen in the right place, and at the right time. The live recording captures it all remarkably well.

So why only three stars for performance? It depends on how seriously you take Mahler’s remark about ‘mysteries and horrors’ beneath the music’s beguiling surface. For me, that’s crucial. And while Haitink doesn’t exactly gloss over the darker elements, there are times when Mahler’s extreme dynamic markings – rapid crescendo-diminuendos or whiplash accents – are underplayed. Yes, the re-tuned fiddle in the Scherzo is deliciously sandpapery, but elsewhere the nightmarish element is toned down. Listening again to Jascha Horenstein’s wonderful 1970 recording on Classics for Pleasure was a reminder of how – without any exaggeration from the conductor – this music can leave a sulphurous aftertaste.

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In Haitink’s hands the slow movement is gorgeous and very touching, with a magnificent final climax. He also brings plenty of life and loveliness to the orchestral writing in the finale, without upstaging soprano Christine Schäfer. But Schäfer’s characterisation seems way off the mark. She has clearly noted Mahler’s warning that the singing should be ‘completely without parody’, but overall there’s an unwelcome severity, as though she views this child’s vision of paradise as more infantile than innocent. Horenstein’s soloist, Margaret Price brings a range of tenderness and complexity Schäfer misses. The recording may seem limited in comparison, but no one who cares about Mahler should let that get in the way. Stephen Johnson