Notes and Editorial Reviews
This original, ungimmicky, and musically searching performance is a worthy addendum to any Mahler collection.
Since the 1892 setting of Das himmlische Leben was Mahier's starting-point for the Fourth Symphony it would be churlish to nominate the finale as the work's most problematic movement. Provided you can accept the idea of a symphony arriving at material from which it originally derives then it is comparatively plain sailing for everyone except lifelong opponents of what the avant-garde used to call progressive tonality. And yet performances often deteriorate in the finale as a result of inadequate soprano work or implausibly perfumed singing. However much we may venerate certain classic recordings of the piece,
how many collectors, I wonder, can stay with Mengelberg, Walter, van Beinum, or Klemperer to the very end? Occasionally a conductor casts shrewdly a voice able to re-create "without parody", Mahler 's instruction, the feel of this fresh-faced, freshvoiced, Catholic country boy who is so excited by the prospect in heaven of St Luke slaying whole oxen. Reiner (RCA—LP only) chose Lisa della Casa who is excellent; Abbado's Frederica von Stade is a good choice on DG, as is Roberta Alexander on the later Hãitink (Philips), even if she is technically less secure than della Casa or von Stade.
Had Benjamin Britten, a great admirer of the work, ever recorded it, he might have thought of sing a boy soloist; but he didn't and so, in the absence of any pre-emptive strike by the Aled Jones Road Show, it has been left to Bernstein to make the break by signing up a remarkably assured chorister from the famous Tölzer Boys' Choir, Helmut Wittek. He is a fearless vocalist with a generally clean top register and a bottom B that puts most of his soprano rivals out of court. He rather yodels the second bar of his solo and skimps the fermata at fig. 14 where he is allowed by an indulgent great-uncle Lenny to toboggan his way spectacularly down to that bottom B. Elsewhere, showing a healthy boyish disregard for pernickety shadings of tone and rhythm, he concentrates on giving a fresh, extrovert, musically confident account of the Wunderhorn verses, helped by good diction and some nice wordpointing. "Who have you cast for the soprano solo?" asked Mahler in 1904. "She must be capable of singing with a naïve, childlike expression, and with particularly good diction!" Wittek has both; and the engineers, possibly fearing some lack of presence in his boyish tones, have recorded him fairly prominently where sopranos often have to put up with balances that give them little more than solo instrumental status. As a result, the text is communicated with unusual clarity on this new recording. Throughout the finale, Bernstein's tempos are uniformly sensible, nearer to Mahier's own, if transcripts of the 1905 Welte Piano Roll are to be trusted, than the rather slower, creamily beautiful Maazel version with Kathleen Battle on CBS.
In the earlier movements Bernstein's reading has mellowed and settled since the late 1960s when he recorded his aggressive, erratic, over-the-top CBS account. Of course, no orchestra plays Mahler's Fourth better than the Concertgebouw. For simple cogency and grainy clarity of utterance they have no equal; and yet, unlike the Vienna Philharmonic, they don't impose their reading on the conductor. This is recognizably Bernstein's own newly-refined but intensely vivid reading; and it is very different from Haitink's, or, going back in time, Solti's, van Beinum's (both Decca), or Mengelberg's (Philips).
The only similarity with the CBS record is the relative closeness of the microphone placing, designed to give the woodwinds maximum impact. Bernstein is at what some will take to be his most mannered in parts of the scherzo, but here and everywhere else in the symphony his conducting tellingly arbitrates between energy and leisure; and there is an agreeable congruence between Mahler's written tempo directions and Bernstein's own inevitably personal feelings about the music's pulses. In fine, this is Mahler shrewdly and sympathetically conducted by a fellow composer. "Don't overlook the thematic relationships that are so extremely important both in themselves and in relation to the idea of the whole work", wrote Mahler, three months before his death, to Georg Gbhler. Bernstein, whose reading is fresh but deep-felt, long pondered but marvellously delivered at the moment of performance, would have needed no such prompting. The performance of the slow movement is a special joy, not least because it is touching and profound without being unduly slow.
We are now spoilt for choice with recordings of what Mahler in 1903 called "this persecuted stepchild that has so far known so little joy in the world". So while you mull over the various alternatives listed above, let me commend to you this original, ungimmicky, musically searching performance as a worthy addendum to any Mahler collection.
-- Gramophone [8/1988]
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler
Helmut Wittek (Boy Soprano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Written: 1892-1900; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 06/1987
Venue: Live Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Length: 57 Minutes 7 Secs.
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