If you are serious about Mahler you cannot take him a la carte. You either take all of him, every major work from his composing life, or nothing. That’s my opinion, anyway. You think it’s a harsh one? Let me explain what I mean. I once received a letter from someone who had read my survey of Mahler recordings. My correspondent displayed great knowledge and love of many individual Mahler works. Then came the parting comment: “So I do love Mahler’s music, though I never listen to the Seventh or Eighth Symphonies. I can’t take them at all.” I suggest that my correspondent has missed the point of Mahler and so was consequently only possessed of a partial picture of the man and therefore his work because Mahler’s symphonies are like an eleven chapter autobiographical novel in music and to ignore two of the symphonies is like ignoring two chapters in that autobiography, leaving you with an incomplete portrait. Also, just like all great novels, many of Mahler’s “chapters” carry significant references back to previous “chapters” providing context and framing. None more so than the Fourth Symphony which began life in the aftermath of the completion of the Third. Crucially Mahler had originally planned that his setting of the “Wunderhorn” poem “Das Himmlische Leben” would be the final movement of that gigantic work. Hard to believe, but there it is. As always, however, Mahler proved his own best editor and perhaps responding to the subconscious urges that move great creative artists he used the completed setting of the poem as the starting point for his Fourth Symphony, even though he always saw it as the last movement there also.
In the free discussion disc that comes with this new release I found that Benjamin Zander lays the greatest stress on the fact that in the Fourth Mahler’s end is also his beginning. However, since I listened to Zander’s performance of the symphony before I listened to the discussion disc I can honestly say that I knew this was his belief anyway. Because, by some strange alchemy, Zander has managed to vividly convey the last movement as the real culmination, the homecoming, for the whole work and it is that that in the final analysis makes this a satisfying recording to own. Indeed I have heard other recordings where, in comparison to this one, it is almost as if the conductor is rather embarrassed by such an apparently trite ending to such a spacious work, especially following one of the greatest and most profound slow movements Mahler ever wrote. As always with Mahler there is profundity to be found in the most unlikely places and juxtapositions and it takes a conductor who knows his Mahler intimately, as Zander does, to bring this out emphatically. His soprano soloist, Camilla Tilling, is quite charming. Far more the “tomboy” than many of her colleagues and her contribution undoubtedly assists Zander in marking the performance of this movement out as distinctive; though I’m sure she was also amenable to Zander’s detailed coaching – something which might not have been the case with a more established diva. Again, many otherwise great recordings founder a little by casting a star soprano in the last movement and by her conductor’s inability to really coach her into the kind of performance Tilling gives. Not a definitive one of course, but newly thought enough to make you hear the music fresh, both on its own and in its correct context. As if to further prove he has thought very deeply about how this movement should be presented, in his discussion disc Zander plays an extract from a concert performance of the work that he conducted in Vienna where he used a boy soprano for the movement. This has been done a couple of times on record (by Nanut and Bernstein) but I have never been in favour of it for all kinds of reasons. Not least the fact that Mahler asks for a soprano and not a treble. So I’m glad Zander resisted the temptation to cast a boy in the recording, as it must have crossed his mind to do so.
It is hard to know precisely how Zander conveys the impression of the last movement as true culmination so well as he does. Perhaps time and repeated hearings will reveal more. Reviewing new recordings is sometimes about giving interim reports, trying to arrive at the kinds of conclusions one has reached already about recordings lived with for sometimes thirty years. Some of what Zander achieves in this instance probably stems from the way he treats the preceding three movements which, I have to say, on their own I do not find as convincing. But that may well be part of the reason why the last movement does shine so brightly when it finally comes. Perhaps it’s all part of Zander’s cunning master plan for the Fourth: stand back emotionally in the first three movements so as to let the fourth blossom all the more. Or perhaps the effect is arrived at more by luck than judgement, succeeding in this particular instance in spite of everything. If that is so it isn’t intended as a criticism of Zander. In fact it could be construed as a compliment with his own response to the music in front of him perhaps coming from depths of which even he knows not. Since music above all the arts works at the very deepest levels of our responses, interpreters especially must be all too susceptible to certain urges to do one thing rather than another without quite knowing why. Conscious or subconscious, it hardly matters. The art of performance is a delicate and ephemeral flower at the best of times, so when something clearly works it’s not essential to enquire too deeply into why it has come about. Let’s just enjoy the result.
In the first movement Zander appears suspended on the cusp between neo-classical restraint and zeal to deliver surface lustre. It certainly seems as though he is wary of crumbling the music’s petals so that the movement emerges in a rather patrician fashion: all symphonic and score details superbly attended to but lacking degrees of fallibility, approachability. I don’t think Zander is helped by the recorded sound that I find a little too general and bass light to make a great impact and deliver the music’s character. Contrast this with the Kletzki recording on EMI or Royal Classics, for example. Even after all these years this is still an object lesson in how to balance this work with bags of detail in perfect proportion. The second movement is more persuasive in both cases with Zander, though. Here he and his violin soloist, Christopher Warren-Green, really have gone to some trouble to project the particular fairy tale evil lurking behind “Friend Death”. I liked too the character-filled chuckling of the clarinets and the effortless way the music segues into the Upper Austrian trios. You can almost see the orchestra members, exemplary throughout, smiling at those points. In the discussion disc Zander makes the inspired connection between the solo fiddling in this movement and that in Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” which was, let us remember, just eighteen years away when Mahler completed this symphony. There’s a thought. I always find connections like that send me back to the music with new ears and that, as always, is the great value of the discussion disc which I suggest you listen to after you have heard the symphony.
The great slow movement receives a luminous, seamless performance from Zander and the orchestra with great line that just fails for me to penetrate beneath the surface beauty. Here I see Zander as a collector and connoisseur of Dresden china who has taken down a much-loved piece from his shelf that he knows every inch of and wants you to know every inch of too and come to love just as much as he does. As fine a guide to the movement than you could ask for but, as with the first movement, he is rather afraid of dropping his much loved ornament and smashing it to bits. Zander the patrician once again. Don’t get me wrong, I like patricians, even in Mahler. There is a certain streak of the patrician in Jascha Horenstein and I admire his Mahler conducting above most. But I do wonder whether, over time, the extreme care Zander takes over the first three movements will mean that this recording won’t endure, won’t really endear itself to the listener in the way others have and that is a serious matter in this most potentially endearing of Mahler’s works. Again, only time will tell on that and it would be nice to be proved wrong. Certainly in the great “collapse climaxes” in the centre of the slow movement the music opens out wonderfully, the great vistas as impressive as ever, and the gates of heaven burst with a real surge of energy. It is then that the last movement enters and is able to make the effect I so much admire. The tempo here is relaxed, some might say too relaxed, but I enjoyed it on its own for the way all the myriad details are allowed to emerge and, of course, as that “beginning as ending” that is at the cornerstone of this work and Zander’s realisation of it. For that aspect above all this version earns its place in the discography.
A patrician and thought-provoking guide to Mahler’s most approachable symphony casting the last movement in its correct perspective.