Gustav Mahler: 4th Symphony (Pentatone)
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Four vital traditions inform this recording, the first in a planned cycle by the Czech Philharmonic and its Russian-Jewish chief conductor Semyon Bychkov. Mahler grew up in Czech countryside, in a Jewish family that spoke Yiddish and German. The Czech Philharmonic gave the world premiere of his seventh symphony and keeps scores with Mahler’s markings in its archive, where I have studied them. Mahler twice visited St Petersburg where he had cousins, fostering an empathy with his music that feeds audibly into the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich and into Bychkov’s personal upbringing. All four of these streams inform his interpretation, making this an unusually interesting Mahler cycle before a note is sounded.
The fourth is Mahler’s smallest symphony, though still requiring an orchestra of 100 and lasting almost an hour. The score is littered with tripwires. How to pace the opening sleighbells effect baffles most conductors. The Dutchman Willem Mengelberg, who conducted it in Mahler’s presence, has a helter-skelter slalom by a runaway orchestra that the baton can barely restrain. Bruno Walter, Mahler’s disciple, performs it with measured respectability. Bychkov calibrates his pace convincingly midway between the two.
The next pitfall comes at the start of the second movement, where Mahler tells the concertmaster to set aside his expensive violin and play rough and off key, like a gypsy fiddle. The Czech concertmaster here is too unshocking for my taste (try Ivan Fischer’s recording for contrast), but the rest of the orchestra sounds appropriately shaken, as it should be, albeit playing with great poise.
The third movement, one of Mahler’s great adagios, can melt ice in Alaska, and the fourth contains a soprano song about animals frolicking in heaven before they are eaten for lunch. Mahler wants it sung naively, ‘without irony’. Chen Reiss, the soloist, is perhaps a little too knowing. But the reading of the symphony has an authentic and altogether inimitable Czech lilt that makes it pretty much indispensable to Mahler connoisseurs. It’s a really positive start to the cycle.
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