Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano); Dallas SO/Andrew Litton
Andrew Litton’s performance of Mahler’s most beatific symphony features the clearest, most open sound of any of the dozen versions I sampled for comparison. This virtue unfortunately emphasises occasional shortcomings in the fine playing of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (some of the wind solos, for example, are less accomplished than their musical surroundings). Litton’s performance does well by the opening movements: vigorous and cheerful without becoming brittle in the first, alternately questioning and yearning in the second. It is with the slow movement that problems arise. Litton stumbles upon a paradox: his heartfelt inflections and tendency to cherish every moment obscure the magical stasis toward which this music aims; by contrast, the delicacy, simplicity and melodiousness George Szell adopts manages to capture that spirit admirably. In the fourth movement, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy is miscast – she adopts too knowing and arch a character, seems insufficiently at ease with the frequent low notes, and lacks the seamless dewiness of voice that can make this song touching, while Litton seems excessively forthright and aggressive, especially as the movement winds down. Avoiding sentimentality may be his aim, but the really fine recordings of this music tap into the vastness of intimacy more successfully. The clear textures of Szell’s classic 1965 recording continue to convey the wide-eyed wonder of this Symphony despite his occasionally forced insistence on a steady tempo in the first movement; those requiring an antidote to such rigidity might find it in Simon Rattle’s frankly experimental degree of tempo fluctuation (EMI). David Breckbill