Here we have one young and one very young conductor taking on the daunting challenge of a Mahler symphony. This is hardly surprising, as thus far both men have been fearless in their choice of repertory. Jonathan Nott has recorded the complete orchestral music of Gyorgy Ligeti for Sony (a thankless task if ever there was one), while Harding chose to begin his career with a highly praised recording of the Brahms Third and Fourth Symphonies. Although neither Nott (who's been the principal conductor of the Bamberg Symphony since 2000) and Harding (who served an apprenticeship with Simon Rattle in Birmingham) is very well known in the States, I'm predicting that won't be the case much longer. Judging by these performances, both Harding and Nott can anticipate major careers.
A Non-Revisionist Mahler Fourth
Is the Mahler Fourth Symphony, as one critic recently claimed, "a sleigh ride through a grotesque, hellish landscape as could only have been imagined by Bosch or Dali?" There are many performances that would suggest this is so. Leonard Bernstein's early New York Philharmonic version emphasizes the restlessness of the music, its anxious search for a serenity that only arrives, belatedly, in the final pages. It could be argued that the one emotion Bernstein could never fully relate to was tranquility. Still, many other conductors have been only too happy to walk through the door Bernstein opened: most recently, Daniele Gatti, whose joyless Fourth ends up sounding positively neurotic.
Thirty-year-old Daniel Harding is no revisionist. In his hands the "sunlit world" of the Fourth shines brightly. This is just about the happiest account of the score I've ever heard. That puts Harding in the good company of George Szell and Rafael Kubelik (whose Fourth is one of the highlights of his complete cycle). Compared to these respectable elders, Harding is even freer and more flexible; there's hardly a moment here that doesn't reflect the conductor's youthful ardor. For Harding, the entire symphony, and not just the final movement, is seen from a naive point of view, through the wonder of a child's eyes. Under his direction the opening is eager, expectant, buoyed by the same high spirits that give the rest of that first movement its essential character: the bumptious ebb and flow of children at play. Few conductors have found more humor in this music than Harding.
I don't want to suggest that Harding goes to the other extreme, that he sentimentalizes the score. There are indeed dark shadows, disturbing echoes; and even in that otherwise exhilarating first movement, a precipitous tumble into nightmare (from which emerges the bitter trumpet fanfare we'll hear again at the very beginning of the Fifth Symphony). But as Deryck Cooke points out in his introduction to the composer's music, "it is not that there are no shadows in this work--on the contrary, there are some very dark ones--but they are seen, from out of this innocent pastoral world, as figures moving behind a veil, which obscures their naked horror, and makes them like the bogeyman who appears in illustrations to books of fairy-tales." Which is exactly how Harding treats them. Unlike, say, Gatti, who inverts "text" and "subtext," the gathering clouds cast their shadows, but are then just as easily dispelled. In this work at least, the radical innocence that Mahler keeps returning to in his first four "Wunderhorn" symphonies is triumphant.
The Fourth is not only his sunniest work, it is also his most restrained and classical. The smaller orchestral forces Mahler deploys are the same that Haydn and Beethoven used, and for once he does without trombones. In some versions of the symphony (Maazel, Solti, Karajan), the reduced forces count for naught, but here Harding emphasizes the luminous transparency of the music with chamber-like delicacy and a pointillistic sense of detail. It says much about Harding's promise that he is able to grant each episode its full expressive weight, while keeping the tempi flowing.
Dorothea Roschmann's voice is perhaps too "grown up" sounding for the last movement's "Heavenly Life:" Reri Grist (for Bernstein), Lisa Della Casa (for Reiner), and Elly Ameling (for Haitink) all do a better job of projecting the timbre of a child's actual voice. But like Judith Raskin (for Szell) or Lucia Popp (for Tennstedt), Roschmann does such a good job of acting the part, of characterizing the role she's playing in an almost operatic way, that her phrasing and intelligence soon won me over. In the end, she transcends her limitations in a way that Amanda Roocroft (for Rattle) and Edita Gruberova (for Sinopoli) do not: their thickish, heavyset voices make those two versions altogether out of bounds.
There are many fine Mahler Fourths to recommend: the aforementioned Kubelik and Szell, Klemperer and Zander with the Philharmonia, Tennstedt with the London Philharmonic, and both Haitink and Solti with the Concertgebouw. As he first taught me the music, I've always had a deep affection for the more objective-minded Reiner, and I wouldn't want to be without two invaluable historic releases: Walter with the New York Philharmonic and Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw. I can even make room in my pantheon for the occasional revisionist version; fans of this work should definitely hear MTT and the San Francisco, if only for its spellbinding (and heartbreaking) third movement. But Harding gives away nothing to his more famous peers. The three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn provide a very pleasurable postlude to the symphony. With one caveat (see my discussion of sound below), Harding's Mahler Fourth is highly and urgently recommended.
And Now For Something Completely Different
In the Fifth Mahler attempted to break new ground, to compose in a "completely new style," and it is in every respect radically different from the Fourth. This time around, a huge orchestra (the trombones are back!), no programmatic content (or voices or songs or movements based on songs), five movements that take more than 70 minutes to perform. Whereas the Fourth is genial, easygoing, the Fifth is unstable, disruptive--in Alma Mahler's words, a "chaos that is eternally giving birth to a world that then perishes in the next moment." Whereas the Fourth speaks with a child's voice, the Fifth rages and storms, blusters and bellows, whimpers and sighs. It begins in anguish and grief, a descent into nightmare, and ends with a love song that opens onto a boisterous (but goofy) climactic rondo. Unlike the Second, there isn't a clear sense of progression from the despair that begins the symphony to the starry transcendence that concludes it. Mahler makes no attempt to connect the anguish of the first two movements to the various shades of joy that are at the heart of the final three. As Deryck Cooke has said, in the Fifth Symphony one finds "two... utterly opposed attitudes... set side by side, with so little reconciliation between them as to threaten the work with disunity." Which is to say, the Fifth is one of Mahler's most schizophrenic works.
And that makes it difficult to get right. Though currently more than fifty versions of this symphony are available, and just about every well-known conductor (Bernstein, Walter, Solti, Haitink, Boulez, Karajan, Barenboim, Chially, and Tennstedt, to name only a few) has taken a whack at it, the sad fact remains that few of these are in any way completely satisfying. Solti's streamlined virtuosity, Karajan's sophistication, Boulez's icy intellectualism, Haitink's objectivity, and Bernstein's passionate commitment all produce mixed results. It's easy to understand why the ever-prophetic Mahler called the Fifth "a cursed work that no one comprehends." In fact, I can think of only two versions I'd recommend without qualification. Though I've never taken to either of Abbado's Mahler cycles (the earlier one with the Chicago, the later one with the Berlin), his 1993 version with Berlin -- it preceded his tenure as music director there--is insightful and urgent, surprisingly intimate. It's one of Abbado's most personal and committed performances. With the Philharmonia playing as if their lives depended on it, Benjamnin Zander is characteristically authoritative and expressive, and those who like their Mahler Fifths on the fast side need look no further.
For me, this new version by Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony comes as close as either Abbado or Zander to giving us a completely satisfying Mahler Fifth. Nott's approach to the symphony is both honest and impartial. He seems to realize that there is no need to exaggerate the music, to be indulgent or excessive. The exaggerations and sense of excess are all right there in the score. Maybe it's because Nott doesn't come at the symphony with a point of view of his own that he can give full expressive weight and the maximum force and intensity to each of the contrary and clashing voices one hears in the work. In just this way, he achieves a middle ground that is neither wholly objective nor subjective -- but a bit of both. Like Abbado and Zander, he communicates with some conviction both the anguish and the ecstasy that form the symphony's bipolar extremes.
Part of Nott's success here is that he relies on slowish tempos. For me, most conductors simply take this music too fast--an approach that can be very exciting, especially in the presence of a great virtuoso ensemble. But rushing through often makes a hash of the individuality and character of Mahler's writing. In this instance, Nott's patience pays big dividends, and both the ambiguity and the complexity of the score are laid bare in revelatory fashion. I hasten to add that Nott's timings for each movement come close to the composer's own recommendations, and also that his tempos never drag. Like Harding, he is adept at keeping the music flowing from one moment to the next. It's worth mentioning that in his recording with the Berlin, Sir John Barbirolli is also on the slow side--and for the most part deeply convincing. But he can also be heavy-footed and brusque in ways that the more lithe and graceful Nott manages to avoid. Certainly if you have any love for this music, you're going to want to hear this performance.
Two Different Philosophies
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Bamberg Symphony are both up to the considerable demands of these two very different symphonies. I am especially impressed with the detailed work of the Mahler Orchestra, the transparency of their response. As for the Bamberg, it yields nothing to the more famous orchestras that have recorded the Fifth. Their ability to sound whatever emotion the music calls for is remarkable throughout. They can thunder and whisper with equal conviction.
As for the sound, these two productions represent diametrically opposed views about how to record an orchestra. The sound of the Mahler Fourth is an idealized picture conceived in an engineer's head and manufactured at the studio console. As such, it is perfectly acceptable: the sound conveys both the clarity and warmth of the performance. But the image is shallow, and there is no "air." As is often the case with such idealized products, I have no idea where I'm supposed to be sitting. The orchestra is seen from an omniscient point of view, and the listener in his/her living room is everywhere and nowhere at once. This isn't quite enough of a caveat to dim my enthusiasm for the performance. But before they take on another Mahler symphony, I hope the Virgin engineers get a chance to hear Tudor's far more involving, exciting production. The sound of the Mahler Fifth, while not quite "demonstration quality," has convincing depth and abundant "air," and is thrillingly realistic. In this case I know exactly where I'm supposed to be sitting: on the floor and way up close. With the Fourth I witness the performance from a safely analytical distance. With the Fifth, I have a sense of fully participating in what's going on. In SACD mode, the sound blossoms even more fully.