Notes and Editorial Reviews
Despite its quiet ending, Mahler’s Fourth is a “finale symphony.” Any reference recording has to start with the best finale, and that means the best singer. That narrows down the choices considerably. The boy soprano options, including Berstein’s, are out as a matter of course. They are gimmicks. And while many light sopranos (and some not so light ones) have sung this music affectively, only two have done so in a manner which, to my mind, stands out as truly definitive: Netania Davrath on Maurice Abravanel’s surprisingly fine Vanguard recording, and Reri Grist, here. Grist was a Bernstein discovery. She sang in the 1957 premiere of West Side Story before launching a major career as a coloratura soprano centered mainly in Europe, including
spending a quarter century at the Vienna State Opera. She retired in 1991.
In 1960, Bernstein chose Grist for his performances and subsequent recording of Mahler’s Fourth, and she also appeared with him singing this finale in one of the televised Young People’s Concerts. As you can hear in the sample below, her singing is inimitable: pure, innocent, with crystal clear diction and full of the wide-eyed wonder that Mahler demands. It’s the perfect culmination of an interpretation that has many of the same qualities. Plenty of subsequent recordings have ferreted out various instrumental and expressive nooks and crannies of this inexhaustible symphony, but Bernstein’s performance, especially in the long first movement and Adagio, captures the music’s flow as have few others. The music evolves as if it’s being improvised on the spot, and it’s wonderful.
There’s another point worth making in connection with this performance, a purely personal one, but it may resonate with some readers. Like many of us, I used to read the old Penguin Guide, and I remember this performance being qualified with a rather snarky comment (despite general praise) to the effect that the climax of the Adagio did not have to “as violent as Bernstein shapes it,” or words to that effect. I won’t go off on my usual rant about British music critics; the point is that if you glance at the score, you will see that Mahler marks this climax triple fortissimo, horns and trumpets fortissimo, bells up, with the option of reinforcement by the clarinets in case the trumpets aren’t strong enough, with the timpanist instructed to use double sticks on each drum for extra oomph. Then, on reading Mahler’s biography, I learned that he regretted not having trombones for this one climax, though he opted not to employ them for reasons of economy since he didn’t need them anywhere else in the symphony. In other words, it could hardly be more violent.
The lesson I learned, and it’s worth keeping in mind, is that these critics were judging this performance by criteria having absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what the composer demanded. Of course, we all do that to some degree or another. This is a very subjective business. However at the very least, as a matter of professional competence, in basic repertoire we should at least try to find out what the score says where possible before condemning the performers for what they do. Bernstein earned a reputation during his career as a willful interpreter; but especially in Mahler, if you take the time and trouble to investigate the scores, as often as not you will find that no one is more faithful both to the letter and the spirit of what Mahler actually wrote. That’s a fact.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler
Reri Grist (Soprano)
New York Philharmonic
Written: 1892-1900; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 02/01/1960
Venue: St. George Hotel, Brooklyn, New York
Length: 55 Minutes 4 Secs.
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