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Mahler: Symphony No 4 / Abbado, Fleming, Berlin Po

Release Date: 01/10/2006 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000575902   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Gustav MahlerAlban Berg
Performer:  Renée FlemingGuy Braunstein
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

I received this disc with relief: at last, a new recording of the orchestral version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It is the fifth in an apparently on-going series of new recordings of the Mahler symphonies performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by its former music director, and it follows the splendid performance of the revised version of the Mahler Sixth (reviewed in 29:2). Like the others, this one succeeds an earlier recording, also from DG: a performance recorded nearly 30 years ago in Vienna, featuring Fredericka von Stade in the finale.

Maestro Abbado conducts the opening measures at a consistently quick pace, unlike his colleague and successor in Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle. This makes for a lighter feeling in the
Read more introduction, altogether appropriate to a piece nicknamed “humoresque.” Indeed, the first movement in general is fleet and light of texture, though not to the point of monotony, reminiscent instead of the mood of the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony: one can hear the shepherds carousing, generally enjoying the weather, despite the occasional hints of rain to come.

The comic side of the second movement is prominent as the “devilish” fiddler ushers in the mincing theme in the strings. The comedy continues in the second wistful theme and its clumsy winds. The two themes dance their respective dances, undergoing variation but retaining their light tread. Abbado accommodates this with conducting that is free of extraneous exaggeration, and the Berlin Philharmonic plays with a notable degree of delicacy, but with characteristic precision.

One criticism I had of the earlier recording was of the third movement: it always sounded a bit foursquare and dull, despite the lushness of the Vienna strings. There is in this new performance a stronger feeling of flexibility in the tempo; more important, there is a sense of calm but also of urgency and an underlying sadness, even grief, that can erupt at any time—and does. Abbado shows us just how Mahlerian this movement is, illuminating all of its contrasting moods, rather than underplaying them.

For me, a performance of the Fourth lives or dies by its fourth movement, and particularly by its soloist (not so unusual, really—Mahler started with this movement). As readers are probably tired of hearing, I prefer a lyric soprano with a youthful, mostly vibrato-free voice for this song. There is no gainsaying the beauty of tone, or the seemingly effortless high notes, of Renée Fleming’s performance. It is, rather, the maturity and lushness of her voice that I dislike. It’s completely a matter of taste: I have similar difficulty with not only von Stade but such splendid singers as Margaret Price (Horenstein) and Kiri Te Kanawa (Solti, Ozawa), preferring Barbara Bonney (Chailly) or Heidi Grant Murphy (Litton), whose performance with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a few seasons back. Whatever one’s reaction to the vocal solo, Abbado’s conducting is sensitivity itself, and the performance ends with a serenity that few have matched.

Like Abbado, Chailly paired his recording of the Fourth (23:5) with the Berg songs, sung by the estimable Bonney. Since both Abbado and Chailly have similar conceptions, it is once again the singer who will probably determine preference in this work. My choice is (surprise) Bonney, whose characterizations and dramatic sense are every bit as convincing as those of Fleming and whose lighter tone is an interesting contrast to the late Romanticism of Berg’s setting. I was schooled in Berg’s vocal music by a recording of Bethany Beardslee singing the Altenberg Lieder, and it is this imprinting that is no doubt responsible for my aversion to the more overtly operatic singing heard in recordings of Berg songs by Price, Jessye Norman, and now Fleming.

My recommendation is complicated by the fact that I prefer Claudio Abbado’s performance of the Mahler symphony; in addition, Mr. Abbado’s authority in Berg is unquestioned—I was quite taken by his earlier recording of the Seven Early Songs with Anne Sofie von Otter and the VPO on DG. Chailly’s Fourth, for all of its strengths, is marred by a first movement that now seems too deliberate and heavy. For the few listeners who will make a decision based on the Berg songs, I would opt for the Chailly; for Mahlerites, I will swallow my objections to Fleming and recommend this new DG disc.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Renée Fleming (Soprano)
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1900; Vienna, Austria 
Early Songs (7) by Alban Berg
Performer:  Renée Fleming (Soprano), Guy Braunstein (Violin)
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905-1908; Austria 

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