This is the first of Fabio Luisi’s ongoing Mahler cycle that I’ve encountered, and we are in at the deep end with the deceptive simplicity and contained form of the Fourth Symphony. Aside from the thematically treacherous Seventh, the Fourth’s lighter orchestration and mood can prove to be the undoing of many a Mahler specialist, used to the bombast and tragedy of the preceding Second and Third symphonies. Yet,Read more overdo the vision of heaven and picturesque sleigh rides, and this extraordinary work can become very wishy washy and even cute! Despite the work’s tortuous, cut and shut conception (the vocal movement was written much earlier and was intended to be a seventh movement for the Third symphony), its journey from the jolly folk-like imagery of the opening movement, via the ironic portrait of death in the scherzo, through to the calm of the soprano’s heavenly utterances feels very natural and logical.
Logical is my main impression of Luisi’s Mahler here. Tempos are swift but not ridiculous, with fine, pointed phasing, and a lithe, agile string sound. Possibly, now and again, he indulges in a bit too much rubato in the first movement, but such is the brightness of the playing (superb horn playing in the scherzo) throughout, that this is a minor criticism. Elsewhere it is Luisi’s refusal to overplay the big climaxes that impresses; that gorgeous second theme of the scherzo (here 7 minutes in), the light rising of the murky gloom, is sweetened just enough, without being cloying or undermining the sardonic depiction of death earlier on.
The most typically Mahlerian movement is the third; an epically shaped Adagio, which results in an earth shattering climax. Luisi again paces this well, so that the still of the fourth movement arrives naturally, rather than with a jolt as it can with some interpreters, like late Bernstein (DG). I can’t say, however, that I’m especially thrilled with Sandra Trattnigg’s rather pushy, yet tonally bland way with the final movement. It doesn’t help that she faces tough competition from Lucia Popp (on both Klaus Tennstedt’s and Gary Bertini’s EMI versions) and Barbara Bonney (on Riccardo Chailly’s Decca set) who are both more rapt and childlike in approach, but it’s not hard to think of several sopranos of Trattnigg’s generation who would suit this music better, like Natalie Dessay, Lisa Milne, or Sine Bundgaard. Nevertheless, Luisi accompanies beautifully, rounding off what is a well unified, thought through interpretation. Tennstedt’s intense performance on EMI is still my preferred version, but Luisi is to be recommended to those who find Chailly too sumptuous (partly Decca’s glitzy recording) and Pierre Boulez (DG) rather cold and static. Judging by the other offerings in his MDR Mahler series, like the chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde, Luisi is trying to find something that stands out from the now rather crowded Mahler scene on record.
MDR’s sound is excellent; full-bodied, with the orchestra’s solo contributions daringly bright and close, although such unflinching recording means you hear some extraneous noises, like page turning. Noteworthy are the thorough essays and text and translations. I’m not sure Luisi has anything vastly different to say from all the other great Mahler interpreters and he has a rather sullen soloist but there’s a lot to admire in this vivid, fuss-free version.