WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Philharmonia/Giuseppe Sinopoli
CATALOGUE NO: 437 527-2 DDD
Being natural was never Sinopoli’s strongest asset as a conductor, and what we hear right at the start is the worst of it: he simply can’t settle on a tempo for Mahler’s seemingly innocent sleigh-ride that feels easy, gracious or comfortable.
Experience hardly has a better deal: the songful second subject of the first movement sounds laboured, doubly so on its return, and the slow movement’s darker side loses crucial focus when the violins’ cry from the heart descends to lower strings. Problems with gear-changes in both movements unhappily stress the difficulties beneath the simple surface, but in that respect Sinopoli is in august company – younger Bernstein, Welser-Möst and, most recently, Salonen have been similarly baffled.
Scherzo and song-finale offer a few insights, where it’s a question of expressionist painting rather than long-term connecting. The Philharmonia leader (uncredited) gives a strikingly acid portrait of brother death – soothed and put to rest, a movement later, by Edita Gruberova’s subtle sermon on the joys of heaven. A phrase or two of hers might have merited a retake, but the right approach puts her at the top of a distinguished list. Not so, as you will have gathered, the interpretation as a whole; nor is the Philharmonia sound well served by the garishly lit recording. David Nice