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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No 4
Laura Claycomb, Soprano
Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Review By Phil Gold

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  There was a time long ago when Mahler was in heavy rotation on my stereo. As his popularity has increased exponentially over the years, I have retreated into a world of smaller scale works: sonatas, quartets and the like. I've turned away from this rich romantic repertoire, and when I do play symphonic music it is mostly earlier, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, or later – Shostakovich in particular. I still get a massive thrill when Mahler is wonderfully played, but almost all conductors leave me cold after hearing the incomparable Otto Klemperer lead the Philharmonia Orchestra through the "Resurrection" Symphony in the Royal Festival Hall. I need Mahler at that level or not at all.

This then is the first Mahler Symphony I have reviewed in these pages. Valery Gergiev has earned a prodigious reputation through his work with the Mariinsky Orchestra and is recording a complete Mahler Symphony cycle in a very compressed time period. Here we have the smallest scale of all his symphonies, one that perhaps doesn't need the granite structural integrity that Klemperer perfected.

This is a profoundly disappointing recording, because I expected so much from the performance and from the recording quality. LSO Live has a strong reputation for sonic excellence but this recording lacks both balance and dynamics. How much blame should be attributed to the recording engineers and how much to the conductor I cannot say, but both faults directly impair my enjoyment of this wonderful symphony. The balance issue is the greater problem, since entire musical lines fade out beneath the weight of other strands when all should be heard. The tempo also seems to drag throughout much of the performance, although one could never say the same about George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in their famous 1960's recording (Sony Classics SBK 46535) even though that version takes 58 minutes to Gergiev's 55.

Szell is masterful at balancing all the sections of the orchestra so every line is crystal clear, and shapes the music exquisitely. In fact he was never better, and soprano Judith Raskin is more musical and attuned to the orchestra than Laura Claycomb on this new recording. Szell's second movement struts its devilish magic, his orchestra is more polished, more colorful and has greater ensemble, and Szell achieves simpler stronger lines connecting the various elements of the music drama into a coherent whole. Some have criticized Szell's Mahler for being too perfect, a criticism I find valid when applied to Karajan's Beethoven but not here. There is no excess of surface sheen, just a superb professionalism that highlights the composer's intentions with superb clarity and wit. Szell's performance outshines this new disc in every way, so that's where I would spend my money.





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