Mahler: Symphony No. 4

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Amanda Roocroft (soprano)CBSO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56563 2
If DG’s latest slogan ‘Mahler for the 21st Century’ has any meaning for the new series of Boulez interpretations, it can only apply to a superfine clarity of texture and execution. Surely, though, the chief qualification for Mahler performances, present and future, is to remain fully human. This is not an option for Boulez when the Ninth Symphony’s essential sanity comes into conflict with baser instincts. Indeed, the rather rigid handling of the first movement’s three tidal waves and the scherzo’s more riotous dance sequences sounds almost old-fashioned, a throwback to the cautious logic of Bruno Walter.

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Much more striking and ‘modern’ are the twilight zones between collapse and regeneration. Boulez coaxes perfectly articulated solos from the Chicago Symphony wind and brass, unforgettably so for the flute’s cautious first movement valediction. The symphony’s ultimate farewell is resolutely unsentimental, but never icy; spiritual strength rather than pathos shines through.

While Boulez’s Ninth is carved in stone, Gatti treats the Fifth as a luxury punch-bag. Fortunately, the Royal Philharmonic’s new music director is a prize-fighter whose preparation is hardly less impressive than Boulez’s. His sense of Mahlerian hysteria can be brittle, but the conflicts of the scherzo spring theatrically to life and he clearly encourages individuality from his players. Only the strings need a little more personality, to judge from a rather externalised Adagietto.

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Rattle, unusually, shares Gatti’s instinct to spurt in the Fourth’s usually even-tempered first movement, perhaps sharing Abbado’s view of the childlike journey as fraught with danger; even so, a deliberate pace for the first three bars followed by a sudden rush for the main business, compounded by dry if truthful sound, makes one more than usually uncomfortable. Still, dynamic and rhythmic precision are at the usual CBSO premium in highlighting the macabre detail that is more often the exclusive property of the scherzo. Thereafter, Rattle reasserts his humane mastery in an ineffable sailing to the goal of the child’s heaven, reinforced with spirit by Amanda Roocroft.