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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1901)
Sofia Fomina (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 12 October 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London

There are so many options; where does one start with recordings of Mahler’s “little” Fourth Symphony? My own introduction to it was from Horenstein and Margaret Price in 1970, followed by Szell and Judith Raskin; both are very fine and I could have done a great deal worse as an entrée to this most genial and approachable of Mahler’s symphonies and to the composer in general, of whom I was largely ignorant – and I have never looked back except with gratitude. It may have its darker aspects, but this work is essentially a symphony of waltzes, Ländler, discordant village bands and mountain walks culminating in a delightfully robust and politically incorrect celebration of homespun heavenly joys.

Among modern, digital recordings I much enjoy Gergiev (review) for its lightness and charm and there is no shortage of competition from the analogue era conducted by Tennstedt, Maazel, Levine, Bernstein et al, who, apart from the mastery of their conducting, often have the edge in the form of superior soloists like Kathleen Battle and Lucia Popp. The comparative weakness of Gergiev’s recording – unless you objected to the sunniness of his approach in general - was the merely pleasant soloist.

The first thing to note is the splendour of the sound. The Royal Festival Hall has become a much more grateful performance and recording venue since a mere £90 million was spent on its refurbishment. That would build an awful lot of social housing but who am I to judge with results like these? Rich, beautifully balanced and all-enveloping, the sonics reveal the LPO, so ably led by Pieter Schoeman, as the world-class orchestra we regular attendees at their concert-base know them to be. There is no rush to Jurowski’s unfolding of the first movement and he is not averse to some sly rubato, but nor does he let tension slip; accents are sharply sprung and ensemble is crisp. The sweetly singing conclusion, with its pizzicato commentary is just perfection; you’d swear you can hear the audience exhale in satisfaction.

Schoeman’s scordatura-tuned violin plays an important role in depicting the macabre figure of Death playing the fiddle, combining gaucherie with allure; the hallmark of Jurowski’s performance is the way he meticulously obeys Mahler’s instructions to avoid haste in all four movements without allowing any hint of slackness to vitiate the suggestion of menace lurking just beneath the surface of the melodic flow.

Respite is forthcoming in the sumptuous Adagio where every instrument is virtuosic; I am particularly struck by Jurowski’s phrasing and use of graded dynamics; this is a conductor at his zenith working in harmony with an orchestra which breathes with him. The depth of sonority they achieve seven minutes in is extraordinary – wonderful playing. And how appreciative I am of the unashamedly emphatic glissandi and portamenti from the strings towards the close of the movement at 19:19.

On first listening, having been so captivated by the excellence of the first three movements, I found myself desperately hoping that the soprano soloist would not prove to be the weakest link after so satisfying a performance. Sofia Fomina proves to be just right: powerful but silvery and child-like, soaring but with good low notes. It is nice, too, in these days of cost-cutting to be given the text lifted from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. “Sehr Behaglich”? (Very cosy?) Hmm; maybe; Mahler’s annotation is as ironic as his text, providing an ambiguous and bizarrely anticlimactic conclusion to this most entertaining of symphonies.

With the welcome announcement of Edward Gardiner as the new Principal Conductor of the LPO, it is perhaps now appropriate to acknowledge what a boon Jurowski has been to the orchestra during his association with them now dating back to December 2001; he has certainly been at the helm for some of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in my London and Glyndebourne concert-going.

Ralph Moore

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