September 1999

Mahler - Symphony No. 4
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoel Levi
Telarc CD-80499
Released: 1999

by Deryk Barker

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]A brief survey of my CD and LP shelves at home reveals a couple dozen recordings of Mahler's Symphony No.4 -- and that's ignoring the more recent arrivals still waiting to be filed. This symphony, although received with incomprehension and downright hostility at its first performance, is now seen as one of Mahler's two "light" symphonies, and consequently there are already many fine recordings available.

Unfortunately this new one, while without question recorded and played beautifully, simply doesn't stack up against the competition. And Frederica von Stade, who may be an attractive feature for many, has recorded both works before, arguably to far greater effect. This was particularly noticeable when playing the 1978 Abbado recording (DG), on which von Stade is also the soloist, immediately after this new recording. The Levi sounds fine while you're listening to it, if a little uneventful, but put on the Abbado and you are immediately in a different, far more interesting and characterful world. What made this discovery even more critical (in any sense of the word) is that Abbado's would not even make my top-ten list for this work.

To sum up: if you want Mahler's Fourth, you still have a wide range of choices. My personal favorite is from 1958, conducted by Paul Kletzki with the Philharmonia Orchestra (one of Dennis Brain's last recordings), currently available on budget-priced EMI issues. From the 1960s, George Szell's justifiably famous 1966 Cleveland recording should still be available on Sony (also at budget price) -- and my copy comes coupled with von Stade's first recording of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, although Andrew Davis (her accompanist) is not the world's greatest Mahlerian either. Also recently released in England (and heading this way) are two great performances on the new BBC Legends imprint, conducted by Benjamin Britten and Sir John Barbirolli respectively.

For those who insist on modern digital sound, Salonen's LA recording (also Sony) is first-class as, surprisingly, is Sir Colin Davis's on BMG (Davis is no Mahlerian under normal circumstances). All of these recordings -- and I've not even mentioned any of the four or five by Bruno Walter -- leave this new one standing, I'm afraid.