MAHLER:  Symphony No. 4 in G Major.  BERG:  Seven Early Songs
Barbara Bonney, soprano/Royal Concertgebouw Orch/Riccardo Chailly, cond.

DECCA 466 720  (F) (DDD)  TT:  73:56 

Yet another recording of Mahler's most popular symphony to add to the 30+ already available. This is the eighth (!) recording of this symphony with the famed Dutch orchestra. The first is the invaluable Willem Mengelberg live recording from a radio broadcast November 9, 1939 (with soprano Jo Vincent), like no other recorded performance, representing the style of Mahler performances in the composer's time.  Next to record the Fourth  was Eduard van Beinum (with  Margaret Ritchie) in 1952, and the first stereo recording was Georg Solti's (with Sylvia Stahlman), in February 1961. Bernard Haitink's first recording was in December 1967 (with Ely Ameling), the second, and his first digital recording, was November 1983 (with Roberta Alexander), and a live performance from 1982 (with Maria Ewing) has been issued in the Philips Haitink Mahler set.  Leonard Bernstein's live recording of June 1987 is unique in that it features a boy soprano (Helmut Wittek) instead of the usual soprano.

Chailly is doing a fine job in perpetuating the distinguished Concertgebouw Mahler tradition.  His performance of the Fifth is superb, as is his Seventh (with its welcome Diepenbrock filler)—but why his Mahler Sixth has been discontinued is a mystery. His Mahler Four is rather cool and, of course, beautifully played.  Soprano Barbara Bonney negotiates the final movement's text "with sincere and serene expression" as Mahler wished.  She also sings Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, a highly appropriate filler considering Berg's advocacy of Mahler's music and general similarity of music and texts. 

Sonic quality on this issue is disappointing as it has been on many  Decca recordings of recent years in the Concertgebouw. The confused sound picture lacks perspective, is generally distant with uncontrolled, undefined bass and a lack of presence. The Concertgebouw is recognized as one of  the world's finest concert halls. The  rich, warm sounds of an orchestra playing in it are only suggested by engineering such as this. It isn't that the new Mahler 4 sounds bad; it doesn't.  It just doesn't sound like the Concertgebouw.  All other recordings of the Fourth listed above offer a better sonic representation of the Concertgebouw with particular kudos to Solti's stereo 1962 version engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson—which surely deserves reissue.  Wilkinson also engineered Van Beinum's 1952 mono recording; it, too, has a more natural sound than later Decca recordings in the hall.

R.E.B.  (Mar. 2000)