MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G Major – Chen Reiss, soprano/ Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Semyon Bychkov – Pentatone PTC 5186 972 (2/23/22) 65:49 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Recorded 21-26 August 2020, this Mahler Fourth initiates a new cycle of the Mahler symphonies by the Czech Philharmonic, a project undertaken more than a generation ago by Vaclav Neumann between 1976-1982. Semyon Bychkov (b. 1952) claims to have discovered the music of Mahler in 1960, having heard the Symphony No. 3 in Leningrad and immediately succumbing to its ambitions to “rise above the world in order to see it completely.” The Fourth Symphony (1901), the last of the so-called “Wunderhorn Symphonies,” with its final movement incorporation of verses from Arnim and Brentano, juxtaposed earthly impulses and a pantheistic, even barbaric, vision of a heavenly feast that surpasses human understanding. Actually, the work had been composed in reverse, the last movement’s having been intended for the Third Symphony but left over, its expansion of the 1892 setting of the poem “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) here employed to conclude Mahler’s notion of spiritual immanence, “The World as Eternal Now.”
Bychkov seems unafraid to approach Mahler score in “antique” style, employing slides, portamento, exaggerated rubato, and various Romantic anachronisms to foster the Mahler singing line. This old-world musicianship, given the bright acoustics of Rudolfinum, Prague, as captured by Recording Producer Holger Urbach, resembles more of the Willem Mengelberg tradition that the “cleaner” lines provided by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Rafael Kubelik. The affective mix of the first movement – cluttered with sleigh bells, bird calls, and G Major folk impulses – holds together in its genial, Austro-Bohemian sensibility, clarion and articulate. Typical of Mahler, the graces of Nature find a disruptive foil in the second movement, a snide, jabbing scherzo whose solo violin, tuned in scordatura, a step up for each string – A-E-B-F# – produces the effect of a macabre dance in C Minor, similar to artwork by Hans Holbein and Arnold Böcklin, a devil’s reminder that “in the midst of life we are in death.” Yet, here too, Mahler inserts of melodic episode of surpassing beauty, a consolation devoutly to be wished.
The third movement, Ruhevoll, poco adagio, embraces Nature as an extended meditation, a vision “above the fray” of human conflicts first revealed to me courtesy of Bruno Walter. The G Major period concludes with the introduction of the oboe in E Minor, casting a shadow on this land of smiles, as the structure unfolds into an idiosyncratic rondo whose introductory material undergoes variation. Song, dance, and chorale commune or clash, if you will, until a mighty eruption in E from the orchestra seems to negate all that came before; or, perhaps, almost in the manner of Scriabin, bears it upward to an apotheosis. The explosion’s having dissipated, we hear in the brass the anticipations of the final movement’s main theme. Both sleigh bell and bird call motifs inform the melodic line of the last movement, which asks the vocalist to capture tone of a child without parody, even given the grotesque slaughter provided by saints and angels, described to invoke Heaven’s bliss! Soprano Chen Reiss intones the cheerful innocence of transcendent carnage, her voice bright and her words finely etched, though none of the sopranos in my experience matches Teresa Stich-Randall (1898-2007) for the white-toned naivete she achieves in this music. Still, Chen sings with ardent regret for the poor animals who must suffer in the cause of Heaven’s plenty, and the winds and bell-tones from the harp carry us all into Eternity.