Dip Your Ears, No. 62 

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.4, BPh / Abbado / Fleming
Abbado’s new Mahler recording of the Fourth Symphony with Renèe Fleming should have been a greater event than it was; accompanied by more palpable excitement. Somehow it came and went – along with a few other good, but not quite overwhelming Mahler releases of Oramo’s 5th and Zander’s 1st, reviews of which may well be upcoming. For someone who does not tire proclaiming Abbado “overall” the “best Mahler conductor”, I have been curiously untouched by his 5th, 9th, 6th, and now 4th from the Berlin cycle… though stunned by his perfect(!) 7th, excellent 3rd, and radiant 2nd with Lucerne. Truth be told, in the recording of the 4th, Abbado is not the one to be blamed. I like the tempi, the playing is impeccable. The liquid flow through the music fits the symphony; the slow third movement puts the fifth symphony's slow fourth movement to shame for emotional impact.

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Reiner / Della Casa

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Chailly / Bonney
But lo-and-behold there comes Renèe Fleming and adds her “I-can’t-help-but-love-myself” touch to what should be Mahler’s party, not hers’. She’s got the melodies down; sings all the music. But she sings all music - and no text. I listen and feel she’s trying to tell me a story (probably about herself) – but I’m not buying it. Like watching a man who plays a woman playing an angel, I am twice removed from the real thing and can admire the act but not 'live' the story. Innocence? Nay. One thinks of a lighter, more silvery voice as ideal; something Heidi Grant-Murphiesque, perhaps. Or a young Edita Gruberova. Even the slightly past her prime Lisa Della Casa, a bit full and mature as she may sound on the swift Reiner conducted recording with the CSO, is more pleasant to hear; brings more purity to Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden.

The 4th is generously coupled with the 7 Early Songs by Alban Berg, a great coupling that Riccardo Chailly also thought of, in his recording with Barbara Bonney. Those songs are some of the very finest songs of the time (especially in their orchestrated version, foreshadowing Richard Strauss’), and Renèe Fleming does them justice. Here she can be herself without contorting either self or the music; music that can withstand her rich, self-conscious voice. There is little attention to the text she sings (especially in the Rilke song), all the attention being lavished on the music. The low-shimmering, shuddering vocalization works splendidly in combination with her melodious approach. But then that does not come as a surprise having heard her in those songs in concert. Chosing a fourth without the Berg, I'd opt for George Szell / Cleveland / Judith Raskin on Sony (oop), Eliahu Inbal / Franfurt RSO / Helen Donath on Denon, or Guiseppe Sinopoli / Philharmonia / Edita Gruberova on DG (oop as a single disc but available in the complete box).

DG B0005759-02

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