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Mahler: Symphony No. 4
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"By now the casual observer of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under music director Manfred Honeck might be thinking, `Mahler again? Haven't they played him enough?' But to the die-hard patron--and to most in the audience last night at Heinz Hall--the resounding answer is, `NEVER!' ... When you are in its grasp, this symphony can become a transcendent experience. Especially when you are guided by an expert who feels deeply for this composer, as is the case with Mr. Honeck." -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Following the sensational hit of Mahler's First Symphony, this is the second in the series of Mahler symphonies recorded by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Honeck finds this symphony especially dear to his heart, evoking the world of Mahler with "the interplay of the eerie and the idyllic."
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Thankfully, I trusted my instincts and ordered this magnificent recording. I would rank this as one my absolute favorite recordings of the 4th (along with Szell with Cleveland, Abravanel with Utah, Levi with Atlanta, and Walter with New York).
The sonics on the Exton recordings are lush and gripping. They take a hold of you and do not let you rest.
Whether or not it is "appropriate" to "link this to the Second Viennese School" or interpret Mahler's early symphonies as modernist is a valid conversation...yet, as a self-proclaimed Mahlerite I cannot and do not agree with that perspective.
If you prefer your Mahler more on the romantic side, any of the previous recordings mentioned above would serve you well. However, if you want a Mahler that is tormented and possessed with passion...a modernist Mahler that pushes the boundaries of your heart...BUY THIS RECORDING!!!
Additionally, Honeck's recording of Mahler's 1st symphony comes as my highest recommendation...along with Eschenbach with Houston, Abbado with Columbia, and Levi with Atlanta. But, Honeck is my absolute FAVORITE...but not for the faint of heart.
*Also see Exton's other Mahler recordings...especially Sieghart conducting the 6th and 10th and Macal conducting the 2nd!!! SIMPLY AMAZING!!!
As with Abbado from his earlier Vienna Phil. recording for DG, Honeck makes huge contrasts between fast and slow sections in the first movement with plenty of speeding up and slowing down (rubato) along the way. Combined with the exaggerated fortissimos emanating from the solo and tutti horns, this makes for some truly exciting music making, even if the totality of the movement doesn't hold together quite as well as it does under Markus Stenz (Oehms Classics). So far, so good.
In comparison to Stenz or Roger Norrington, Honeck takes the scherzo a bit on the slow side, but with sufficient underlining of the many noises that Mahler uses to conjure up sinister images: stopped horn notes, accented harp plucks, accented woodwind trills, etc. Even the famous solo violin - tuned up a half step to acquire a more 'devilish' tone - comes across more 'scratchy' and nervous sounding than usual. What Honeck loses with a more relaxed tempo, he makes up for with a keen sensitivity to those sounds that Mahler intended to be slightly 'ugly' and scary sounding. For me, the highlight of this entire performance is the Adagio paced slow movement.
It's here in the Adagio that Honeck coaxes just an unbelievably gorgeous sound from Pittsburgh's unison strings (this bodes well for their upcoming Mahler 3 recording) - capturing the sort of stasis that Mahler was hoping for, without also sounding just plain boring. This is where hiring a truly great string player as a conductor pays dividends! Combined with those front-and-center sounding horns, the slow movement is superb. My only slight complaint comes where our first 'Maazel-ism' rears its head: Honeck takes the huge climax of the slow movement at a very broad tempo. While there's no indication that Mahler wanted this climax to be played quickly, it simply comes off as being over inflated, especially in lieu of the fact that there are no trombones to reinforce the lower end of the sustained brass chords. It also draws too much attention to Mahler's slightly pompous timpani writing. But this is a minor complaint at best. All's well that ends well, and Honeck brings the movement to a gorgeous conclusion.
As in the first movement, Honeck makes big contrasts between fast and slow sections in the vocal finale, taking the various orchestral interjections at break-neck speed. Exciting, yes, but the movement comes across a bit exaggerated and disjointed sounding. Sunhae Im isn't the best sounding soprano ever to have tackled this movement (there've been many!), but she at least captures a sort of yodeling quality on her dotted eighth/sixteenth note figures. To my ears, she sounds a bit pushed by Honeck, but there's also no indication that Mahler wanted this movement performed slowly. However, this is where our second 'red flag' by way of Lorin Maazel comes up: Honeck takes the final vocal stanzas at a much slower than usual tempo (beginning with "kein Musik is ja nicht auf Erde"). Maazel at least had the luxurious singing of Kathleen Battle to fall back upon, but the slow tempo is simply wrong, if we're to believe the relatively quick tempo that Mahler used on his famous piano roll recording. In fact, while Honeck clocks in well north of 9 minutes in the finale, Mahler, Bruno Walter and Mengelberg all clocked-in well short of 8 minutes. One has to keep in mind that this is a child's view of heaven, and not that of an enraptured audience.
In the final analysis, this isn't a bad Mahler 4th by any means. It has some truly exciting moments in the faster bits, and some gorgeous strings in the slower moments as well. Among more recent recordings of Mahler 4 (and hence, with excellent sound), I prefer Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, as well as Markus Stenz on Oehms Classics. They're different enough to justify owning both. They also boast excellent sopranos, especially Miah Persson on the Fischer. If three modern recordings are within your budget (and assuming you don't mind the expensive price tag) you might want to add the Honeck as well. As usual, Exton's sonics are well above the norm. However, the cover art here is only slightly less hideous than it is on their recent Mahler 1 recording - another minor point, to be sure.