As I commented in my review of Douglas Boyd’s recording of Stein’s transcription (29:3), this arrangement is enjoying a disproportionate number of recordings as of late. The performance by the Thomas Christian Ensemble is the second of recent vintage to feature an ensemble without a conductor (the Linos Ensemble on Capriccio was the first). Each of the recordings currently available has something to recommend it: Howard Griffiths employs a boy soprano, both the Smithsonian recording on Dorian and the Linos disc include additional songs, while the Boyd recording is a particularly successful live recording (there is at least one other recording I haven’t heard: a Preiser disc conducted by Peter Stangel, released in 2004).
ARead more sidebar in the booklet to this new MDG recording touts the painstaking sound production, and it’s not just hype: for a “standard” digital recording, it projects a vivid sense of presence, instrumental definition, and natural-sounding timbres that should finally put to rest the old chestnut that digital recordings are sterile or dry. Tempos are assured and flexible. The playing is characterful, precise, and exemplifies the advantages of musicians who dispense with a conductor, and thus become more attentive to each other.
It’s difficult to draw too many distinctions between these excellent recordings: the Smithsonian recording employs more tempo variation, though some of it seems excessive; the Linos Ensemble disc is very similar to this new one, though tempos on the whole are on the fast side; one great advantage of the former, though, is the presence of Olaf Bär, featured on the accompanying Songs of a Wayfarer. The Boyd recording on Avie is the only one of the lot to be recorded live, charging the atmosphere with that indefinable quality that brings out the best in musicians of this caliber.
In rating the nastiness of the scordatura violin of the second movement, I’d give the edge to this new recording—and that’s meant as a compliment. Clarinetist Alois Brandhofer gets the nod, too, for the wonderful nuances and deftness of touch in his performance. Two pianists are cited in the booklet, so I’m not sure to whom credit should be extended (only nine musicians are depicted on the back cover, causing more confusion—13 are named inside the booklet). The Ruhevoll movement, despite a relatively quick tempo, contains playing of rare sensitivity, and then erupts at the gates of heaven. As far as I’m aware, this is Christiane Oelze’s first recording of the Mahler Fourth, which is surprising, given her natural gifts and her work with many of today’s most prominent Mahlerians. Not surprisingly, her performance of “Das himmlische Leben” is the icing on this very rich cake.
If forced to choose, I’d settle for this new MDG recording of the symphony, due in equal measure to the excellence of the playing and of the sound, while the Linos on Capriccio edges out the Smithsonian disc for recordings that contain the Wayfarer songs. Text for “Das himmlische Leben” in the MDG booklet is in German only.