Laura Claycomb, soprano; Alexander Barantschik, violin; Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony
OK — I have to confess that I'm just a wee bit obsessed with Mahler's Fourth. Even after comparing bits and pieces of the two dozen or so recordings I own to this newest disc from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (the fourth disc in their on-going survey of the symphonies), I'm still not sated.
The Fourth Symphony (1901) is Mahler's most accessible and congenial work. Unlike his first three symphonies, it has no explicit program, though its sound world evokes all sorts of extra-musical things like sleigh bells, lambs' bleats, oxen's bellows, and even the devil himself. His shortest symphony, on the surface it is his least ironic and most naive. But that naiveté vanishes after anything more than a cursory listen. It's comic in the way that term applies to Dante's Divine Comedy or in the way that the comic always overturns expectations.
Part of the Fourth's appeal is the technical detail of its composition: it was written backwards. Mahler composed the fourth movement finale, a song for soprano and orchestra, in 1892, nine years before the symphony's poorly received premier. It was intended as part of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, his song cycle named after that collection of German folksongs which he routinely ransacked for lyrics. When it didn't make the cut for Wunderhorn, at first he decided to use it as the finale of his Third Symphony. But, already six movements long, the Third was becoming ungainly, so he set it aside again. He then ingeniously pulled musical ideas out of it and used them to build some of the central themes of the rest of the Fourth, such as the sleigh bells that open the work or the trumpet fanfare that sounds at the great apotheosis at the end of the third movement, derived from the last movement's opening melody. All this is lucidly illustrated, by the way, in Benjamin Zander's lecture accompanying his impressive 2001 recording of the Fourth with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Telarc).
Tilson Thomas gets the symphony off to a traditional start. The main theme enters after a three-bar-long jingling of sleigh bells doubled by flutes and a little downward spiral on clarinet. But there is a complication: the last phrase of the clarinet, marked "ritardando," plays against the first three notes of the main theme, marked "a little held back"; meanwhile, the bells keep a steady rhythm. If a conductor follows the score literally, which few do, right out of the gate there is a brief, alarming pile up of cacophony that foreshadows the little streaks of musical perversity which erupt unpredictably throughout the symphony. But most conductors apply the retard to the bells too, smoothing out this rhythmical collision. Others, like Simon Rattle, Franz Welser-Möst, Riccardo Chailly and Zander, emphasize the musical confusion. Here Tilson Thomas opts to retard all three lines. This choice is characteristic of his somewhat conservative, restrained approach throughout the movement, which is well played but lacks a certain frisson. Compared to Zander or George Szell's legendary 1965 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony), both of whom really highlight the movement's abrupt stops and starts and the odd orchestral accents peppered throughout it, things are a bit dull here.
The same holds true of the second movement. Here Mahler requires the first violinist, as soloist, to be armed with two violins, one tuned a full tone higher than normal — literally "high strung" — which is to be played "like a fiddle." In the autograph score, Mahler named the fiddler afoot in this movement: "Freund Hein" or "Friend Hal," the devil. So the movement is really a Totentanz. To make that point, there needs to be something infernal about the pace and the playing here. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik certainly plays well, but he doesn't fiddle with the fire of, say, Christopher Warren-Green in Zander's altogether more devilish account; nor does Tilson Thomas ignite his players like Szell does in his still unmatched version where you can practically smell the brimstone.
Everything hangs on the Fourth's last two movements, which together build a musical picture of nothing less than heaven. Whatever passion is missing from Tilson Thomas' account of the first two movements now arrives in abundance. As they did in their account of the last movement of their recent recording of Mahler's Third, Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans excel in the Fourth's gorgeous third-movement adagio, marked Ruhevoll (peaceful). Tilson Thomas takes his time laying out the movement's two contrasting themes and their several variations: at 25:27 this is slowest of the two dozen recordings I compared by four or five minutes in some cases (e.g. Szell, Bernstein, Haitink, Chailly, Gatti) and by seven or eight compared to some of the earlier interpreters of the symphony (Walter, Klemperer). But his attenuation of the musical line doesn't feel slow; instead it helps focus attention on Mahler's aural world and emphasizes the sense of timelessness that he created musically here. Tilson Thomas extends the movement's many sustained high string notes in often achingly beautiful ways. His control of the balance and textures of the last ethereal measures, where he adds most of his additional minutes, is superbly done; the long string glissando just before the harp arpeggios in the final seconds will break your heart. Throughout, the SFS plays with exquisite ensemble. The result is the most beautiful and moving account of the movement I have ever heard. I would recommend the disc on this basis alone.
Many a Mahler's Fourth goes belly up in the brief (nine minutes or so) last movement, which incorporates a poem called "Das Himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life") envisioning heaven through the eyes of a hungry child whose greatest celestial joy is food. (It's a nineteenth-century precursor of the song "Food, Glorious Food" from Oliver, and a subtle reminder of how food becomes an obsession in cultures where scarcity is the rule.) Mahler directs that the soprano should sing "with a childlike and cheerful expression; absolutely without parody!" The lightness and innocence of the voice is so critical to the finale's mood that a few conductors have actually used a boy soprano — which Mahler himself contemplated doing — most notably Bernstein in his1987 recording with the Concertgebouw and soprano Helmut Wittek (Deutsche Grammophon). In the lecture disc accompanying his recording, Benjamin Zander provides an excerpt of a boy soprano singing from a 1983 live recording he made with a touring New England youth orchestra. Like Bernstein's, it's a lovely experiment, but neither boy has the technical skill, especially the control of intonation, to make it successful. (For what it's worth, Zander reports that Mahler's niece loved his boy soprano.) Still, vocal texture is everything here. Simon Rattle's otherwise exemplary 1998 recording with the City of Birmingham SO (EMI) is derailed by the heaviness of Amanda Roocroft's voice, which sounds like she's ready to plop a horned helmet on her head and break into Wagner.
This is not a failing in Laura Claycomb, the American soprano who sings beautifully in this performance. Her light, almost airy voice is perfectly suited to the mood of the song, and she sings it with great expressive power. Mahler indicated that the orchestra should "extremely discreetly accompany" the soloist; Claycomb's voice is so enrapturing that when she is singing, you almost forget there is an orchestra. She rockets to the top of my list of favorite soloists in the Fourth. My only complaint is that she is recorded a bit too forward of the orchestra, which sometimes upsets the balance between her and the other musicians.
The symphony was recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall last September before an audience that is supernaturally quiet; I didn't hear them make the faintest rustle. (Many of them may have been stunned into silence by the rapture of that third movement!) The disc is a stereo hybrid SACD playable as a regular stereophonic CD or in the enhanced SACD format which mixes the sound across five channels: the traditional two front stereo speakers plus "surround sound" center front and left and right rear speakers. The SACD version adds a richer bloom to the overall acoustical portrait, widening out the envelope of sound and creating a more vivid sense of presence. But I thought it was just a tad too reverberant, creating a sound space that didn't always match the placement of the orchestra; I couldn't quite figure out exactly where the recording engineers had me sitting. The regular CD version lacks the sonic dimension of the SACD, but it is still very well engineered. The orchestra sounds balanced and well delineated in space. Excellent sound is becoming one of the hallmarks of Tilson Thomas' survey of the Mahler symphonies.
So where will Tilson Thomas' Fourth fall in my ever-swelling inventory? My sentimental favorite is Otto Klemper's 1962 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the first recording I heard of the work. But Szell with Cleveland and the wonderful Judith Raskin is still probably the best overall version I know; even its sound, close to forty years old, is pretty competitive. Among modern digital recordings, I find much to admire both in Welser-Möst with the London Philharmonic and Felicity Lott (EMI Classics for Pleasure) and Riccardo Chailly with the Concertgebouw and Barbara Bonny (London); and I love Rattle with the CBSO until Roocroft starts to sing. But Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia with the excellent Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling would be my current first choice. Still, while I've heard better reads of the first two movements, nobody matches Tilson Thomas's third movement and very few rival his fourth.