Album Reviews

Mahler – Symphony No 4; Berg – Seven Early Songs

(Deutsche Grammophon) UK release date: 14 November 2005

Claudio Abbado’s second Mahler cycle for Deutsche Grammophon is making astrong case to be the definitive digital series to own, and on the back ofsuperb live recordings of the Sixth and Resurrection symphoniescomes this reappraisal of Mahler’s ‘heavenly’ Fourth.

Providing the child’s vision of heaven in the finale is the sopranoRen�e Fleming, and the extra richness that she brings to this music is mostfulfilling, Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic superbly characterising theaccompaniment. It could be argued that Fleming brings a little too much ofher full tone to the setting, but I would counter that there isstill an innocence and serenity found here, particularly in the magicaltransformation of singer and orchestra for the last verse.

The conductor refuses to over-exaggerate Mahler’s macabre effects in theghostly Scherzo, but manages nonetheless to get them noticed with the helpof violin soloist Guy Braunstein, placed uppermost in the mix. Thefirst movement seems to pass in the blink of an eye and yet is not toofast, with a steady tempo aided and abetted by Abbado’s tasteful rubato.

Recording level is the only issue here, as in the finale, where the dynamicrange is best captured by a high volume setting, given the amount of softdetail secured. If anything this interpretation of the first movement plots acourse emphasising the work’s links with the past, with Schubert and Haydn bothtelling influences. The playing throughout is outstanding, strings as one andwoodwind sharply defined, clean yet characterised, and with plenty ofhumour in evidence.

The slow movement is best, Abbado completely unhurried with the timelessserenity of the strings’ first section and yet bringing a mighty surge to theopening of heaven’s gates towards the end, a truly euphoric moment as theorchestra is let loose.

An extremely appropriate coupling sees Fleming taking on the earlyLieder of Alban Berg, a composer who hero-worshipped Mahler and whosestylistic development owes him a clear debt. Here Fleming and Abbado seemkeen to romanticise the music – no bad thing for sure – and the textures ofsongs such as Nacht take on a suitable exoticism. Fleming’s notationis spot on, her word emphasis also ideal, and the nature of the juxtaposition of the composersbrings out Berg’s natural advancement of Mahler’s already forward-thinkingharmonies.

If you have other volumes of the Abbado cycle, no need to hesitate here,for this is a disc that not only gives a wonderful performance of theFourth but serves to emphasise Mahler’s links with the Second VienneseSchool and particularly Berg. Not to mention Ren�e Fleming’s wonderfulvoice!

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Mahler – Symphony No 4; Berg – Seven Early Songs