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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 (1899-1901)
Genia Kühmeier (soprano)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 21, 23 & 28 March 2017, Philharmonie, Munich, Germany
Sung German texts provided. No English translation.

With Valery Gergiev doing such sterling work with Münchner Philharmoniker, I was delighted to be able to attend and report from the first of three concerts in March 2017 at Philharmonie, Munich featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 that were being recorded on the orchestra’s own MPHIL label. Gergiev has been music director of Münchner Philharmoniker since the 2015/16 season and his attractive programme of Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Schubert Symphony No. 4 ‘Tragic’ and Mahler Symphony No. 4 attracted a large audience to the Philharmonie. The previous evening in Munich, I noticed that Gergiev was an audience member at the Nationaltheater watching Bayerisches Staatsorchester in concert but the next day at Philharmonie it was his turn on the podium.

No orchestra has a firmer connection to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony than the Münchner Philharmoniker. It was premièred in Munich in 1901 under the composer’s own baton by Kaim Orchestra, the former name of the Münchner Philharmoniker. Musicologist Deryck Cooke wrote that of the Mahler symphonies the Fourth was, “the simplest and least overshadowed by dark thoughts”.

Bright sounding sleigh bells open the first movement. Gergiev initially provides a comforting and unrushed sound-world before gradually building the weight, and the results are impressive. Here I relish the attractive Viennese lilt to the playing that reminds me of magnificent Alpine landscapes. Designed as a series of dances, the Scherzo has a prominent role for the leader who plays a smaller violin in the manner of a village fiddler and also clarinets playing at times with an unmistakable klezmer feel. With orchestral playing as fine as I have heard in a long time, Gergiev brings out an impressive spectrum of colours. One of Mahler’s most dignified and affecting creations, the slow movement is handled by Gergiev with a light and sensitive touch. I am enamoured by the heavenly string playing and the ability of playing so beautifully soft. Also highly effective is the weight of the forceful orchestral climax towards the end of the movement. During this clamorous episode I remember soprano soloist Genia Kühmeier walking slowly across the stage to her position close to Gergiev. The final movement of this gratifying symphony uses a setting of ‘Das Himmlische Leben’ (The Heavenly Life) from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of German folk poetry. Kühmeier’s endearingly fresh and expressive singing of the child’s innocent vision of heaven is admirable. Without resorting to emotional excess Gergiev’s well-judged speeds brings the score to rest impressively.

Rich in tone and beautifully focused the Münchner Philharmoniker is such a splendidly balanced orchestra. The string section has a noticeably lovely sheen with the low strings emitting a most agreeable mellow timbre. Often a weak link in an orchestra, here the horns play beautifully in tune – if louder than I normally hear – with the principal horn giving an outstanding performance at an elevated level which one rarely encounters. The woodwind section displays its remarkable consistency too.

The sound quality from the Philharmonie, Munich is clear and well balanced. There is little extraneous noise from the audience and the applause at the conclusion has been taken out. In the booklet an informative essay entitled ‘What mischievousness combined with the deepest mysticism!’ by Stephan Kohler adds to the quality of the release. My only grumble is the disappointing omission of an English translation of the sung texts.

When choosing recommendable recordings of Mahler Fourth Symphony there are three seriously persuasive accounts that I play most frequently. The two older recordings are conducted by George Szell with soprano Judith Raskin and the Cleveland Orchestra from 1966 on Sony, and Leonard Bernstein with soloist Reri Grist and the New York Philharmonic from 1960 also on Sony. A more recent recording is Manfred Honeck with soprano Sunhae Im and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra live from 2010 on Exton. Here Valery Gergiev’s compelling live performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is entirely convincing and can stand comparison with and may even surpass those I consider the finest in the catalogue.

Michael Cookson



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