MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G Major; DUKAS: L’Apprenti sorcier – Sena Jurinac, soprano/ Vienna Symphony Orchestra/ Karl Rankl – Guild GHCD 2397, 64:49 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Resurrected from the archives of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, this matinee concert at the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein from 23 January 1954 fell under the auspices of Radio Rot-Weiss-Rot, the Allied-controlled Austrian national radio established after WW II. Austrian conductor Karl Rankl (1898-1968) had been a piano student who also played the violin, and who came under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg’s composition class in 1918. Later in his career, Rankl would collaborate with Hans Swarowsky and Otto Klemperer, becoming that titan’s assistant at the Kroll Opera. Having to emigrate to Switzerland and back to Czechoslovakia during the Nazi years, Rankl finally made it to England, where in 1946 he received the appointment as Covent Garden’s Musical Director. Between 1949 and 1954, Rankl often visited Vienna to lead the Vienna Symphony, his first concert (28 June 1949) having been devoted to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Elisabeth Hoengen and Julius Patzak, the latter of Bruno Walter fame in his historic recording.
The lovely Fourth Symphony of Mahler, among the lightest in texture and scoring, receives from Rankl an eminently Viennese rendition, though not terribly prone to the kind of portamento we hear in Mengelberg or Fried. The airiness of the first movement, its pantheistic optimism, rife as it is with constant polyphonic episodes and variations of woodwind colors. The second movement, with its death’s-fiddle effects, reminds one of old woodcuts, or the old saw that “in the midst of life we are in death.” Rankl asserts the horns’ parts as the jaunty rhythm and sparkling colors define the progress of the movement, occasionally revealing its more sinister possibilities. Certainly, the first two movements project a childlike haze upon us, the idea that “except as ye be as the child, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The solo violin strikes up a dialogue with the winds assertively, just prior to the passionate sliding to the intertwining of voices; and here, Rankl allows the “old-school” glissandos their due. Delicacy and cynicism have rarely been so exquisitely balanced in the realization of this special movement, whose irony forecasts the nature of the last movement as well.
The massive Ruhevoll movement combines mysticism with intricate internal variation form. We hear gentle slides in the strings over the pulsating pizzicati in the bass, the effect as the horns join in, lustrous. Whether Mahler meant to recapture his notion of “Urlicht,” or the innocence of light, the result under Rankl remains as luminous a laendler as the great moments in this work from acolytes Klemperer, Walter, Mengelberg, and Bernstein. Mahler once commented that the inspiration for this grand vision derived from a carving on a tombstone of the departed, with arms folded in eternal sleep. When the swooping, grand convulsion occurs late in the movement, Mahler prepares us for the predetermined move from G Major to E Major and the soprano’s depiction of the heavenly feast and celestial music. The bucolic nature of the writing, and the strong correspondence of the entire symphony to the Wunderhorn sensibility of Mahler the song-writer – in his Das himmlische Leben – produces a weirdly grotesque combination of beauty and slaughter on a cosmic scale. Bosnian-Austrian soprano Sena Jurinac (1921-2011) intones the blissful picture of “the heavenly life,” albeit fraught with a darkly resonant air of sensuality. With breathless clarity Jurinac lists the abundance of the willing victims, the winds, bleating brass, strings and harp in collusion with the ravages of spiritual appetite. In a moment of paradoxical bliss, the poet calls this scene out of Bosch an “awakening,” the angelic voices rousing our collective senses.
The Dukas 1897 setting of the Goethe ballad Der Zauberlehrling (1797) is too well familiar to require program details. The VSO bassoon, horns, triangle, and strings do their part, with Rankl’s mustering up a steamy energy for our hapless practitioner of the black arts. The Scherzo soon assumes the grand design of a feverish excursion into nightmare, with the strings’ invoking a colossal power unbound. The gruesome brooms’ march, supported by a fervent tympani and a fate motif, overwhelm the Apprentice with a wry sarcasm Rankl communicates with the same coloristic, even abysmal, power as Stokowski, and Rankl does not cut the score.
Brilliant restoration sound for this reissue, courtesy of Peter Reynolds, makes this concert essential to any devoted Mahler collector. Certainly the most convincing Mahler I have auditioned so far in 2013.