Endnotes, April 2022
In this edition, Mahler’s Symphony no 4, performed by the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, reviewed by Stuart Millson
Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1899-1900) bears comparison with Beethoven’s Sixth. This is the late-romantic Austrian’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ for the early-20th century. In this work, his shortest symphony at just over 55 minutes, the composer evokes an innocent vision of heaven, seen through the gentle haze of a spring or summer day. In the distance, woodwind instruments – or the sound of a fiddle-player on a Bohemian or Austrian village green – serenade local folk. And yet, in this Middle-European Eden, the sinister sometimes intrudes, the feeling of a Grimm fairy tale unfolding and creating a disturbance in the landscape. Or could it be the earth-shattering presence of the great pagan god, Pan, imported from the mountains and forests of Mahler’s Third Symphony, and suddenly appearing – in a burst of effulgent sunlight – in the slow movement of the Fourth?
The Symphony No. 4 in G major is one of the most radiant of Mahler’s symphonies, and in this new recording by the Czech Philharmonic, under Semyon Bychkov (on the Pentatone label) it is elevated to a new level of transcendental intensity. Previous versions of the Fourth have certainly lodged themselves into the record-buyer’s catalogue of masterpieces: the 1972 version – again with the Czech Philharmonic – conducted by Hans Swarowsky, in that unique Supraphon Records sound (atmosphere and light, yet close-up microphones capturing rasping brass), followed a decade later by Klaus Tennstedt on EMI, with a sumptuous London Philharmonic. Yet Pentatone’s sound-engineers have achieved a phenomenal balance between individual instrumental and section detail, and an overall richness and orchestral timbre, seldom heard today. An older, vintage analogue sound of vinyl records – that weight of orchestral richness which we used to savour so much – has been coupled with the modern digital wash of colour, sinew and sparkle – and all beautifully captured in the pleasing reverberation of Prague’s Rudolfinum Dvorak Hall.
Having heard Bychkov in concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, we anticipated a masterclass in care and craftsmanship. The conductor seemingly allowed Mahler’s music to play itself, like a summer breeze lifting from a meadow, lulling the listener into a dreamworld. In the slow movement, the Czech Philharmonic’s playing moves with the grace and reassurance of an old hymn-like psalm. The meditation goes on, but at some point close to the end of the movement – when the music slows to breaking point – a mighty rush and fanfare erupts, galvanised by fantastic, thundering timpani. Sunshine pours down on the earth in the symphony’s Zarathustra moment.
Finally, in the nine minute song with orchestra that constitutes the work’s conclusion, the soprano soloist Chen Reiss, gentle and clear in every phrase, sings from the German folk-poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn – taking us to Das himmlische leben – the heavenly life:
“We enjoy the heavenly pleasures
and avoid the earthly things.
There is no worldly tumult in Heaven!
Everything lives in the gentlest peace!
We lead an angelic life!
… St. Peter in the sky looks over us…”
Truly a symphony and a message for our time.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Recording and catalogue details: Mahler, Symphony No. 4, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Chen Reiss, soprano. Recorded on the 21st-26th August 2020 in the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague. Pentatone, PTC 5186 972.
[Editorial note; see QR’s review of Semyon Bychkov in concert at www.quarterly-review.org/vladimir-putin-impaler-or-impaled?]