Mahler: Symphony No. 4

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WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Rosemary Joshua (soprano); Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/ Philippe Herreweghe

In his booklet interview Philippe Herreweghe describes how he and his period-instrument Orchestre des Champs-Élysées attempt a ‘sound-setting’ closer to what Mahler might have expected to hear. Certainly the sound is subtly different from what we would expect today: slightly enhanced woodwind colour-contrast, less assertive brass and those gut strings, silky toned yet grainy at the same time.
But when it comes to performance practice – phrasing, articulation, bowing etc – the big surprise is how little different it sounds. Where, for instance, is the generous portamento (sliding quickly from one note to the next) one hears in early 20th-century recordings of string playing? Herreweghe freely admits that ‘the essential is elsewhere’. Unfortunately in his performance that turns out to be literally true.
There are arresting moments, and the playing has a delicate beauty and textural clarity that repeatedly draw one’s attention to Mahler’s technical finesse – and the slightly soft-focus recording doesn’t get in the way. But in the end the experience is rather like booking an Alpine walking holiday and finding you’ve been transported to the gardens of the Palais de Versailles instead – very nice, but not at all what you were anticipating.