MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 (with lecture disc)
Camilla Tilling, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander

TELARC 2CD-80555 (2 CDs). TT: 2:17:21

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 (with lecture disc)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
TELARC 2CD-80569 (2 CDs). TT: 2:26:29

These are the loveliest Mahler recordings I've heard in quite some time: Telarc's engineers have outdone themselves in reproducing the Philharmonia Orchestra's warm, round tones with impressive depth and a velvety sheen. The temptation will be simply to sit back and let the bewitching sounds wash over you—but that would be to miss out on some of the most thoughtful, provocative, and satisfying Mahler playing on record.

The Fifth is Zander's special triumph—a performance which, for all its obvious care over detail, brings us directly to the heart of the music, seemingly without intermediary. His judicious tempi accommodate the music's full range of emotions—note the quicksilver pivots between the second movement's turbulent main theme and the "funeral march" passages—as well as allowing for a consistently beautiful cantabile line. The light, properly intermezzo-like Adagietto, avoiding the heavy-syrup treatment, sings with perfectly executed, impulsive rubato. The Scherzo and the Finale, so frequently discursive and episodic, are unusually cogent here. I particularly enjoyed the Finale: all the little notes register clearly at a tempo that "breathes," yet the movement progresses in an inevitable arc to the climactic chorale, bypassing any discursive distractions.

The playing is not only beautiful, but musically informed. Balances are exemplary, even in difficult passages: the second movementÝs start has all the thrust and elemental force that one could wish, yet string motifs register clearly, cutting through the orchestra without obvious electronic assistance. And everything is accomplished with seemingly effortless precision. I have never heard so rhythmically sure-footed a performance—a tribute, not merely to clear baton signals, but to an exceptional musical understanding being communicated in rehearsal. This performance immediately rises to the top of the short list, along with the comparable Barbirolli (EMI 66962) and the very different Boulez (DG 453 416) and Tennstedt analog (apparently only available in the EMI budget box).

Zander's Fourth, too, offers much to savor, even if it doesn't quite reach so exalted a plane. His light, airy treatment of the score recalls Boulez (DG 289 463 257), but without the French conductor's unfortunate tendency to lurch forward. (The Philharmonia clarinets do momentarily run ahead of the beat in the tricky third bar, but they recover quickly.) Deep, trenchant orchestral colors suggest the anxiety behind the first movement's cheery fa┴ade; later, the fanfare theme, soaring and buoyant, is unusually jubilant. The second movement uniquely dances, and not just in the trio sections (where most conductors find the Löndler flavor); Zander injects the main theme with a one-in-a-bar lilt, with the scordatura violin playfully grotesque. The flowing Poco adagio, once past the segmented phrasing at the start, could use more weight, but the tempo and accelerations for the alla breve section are nicely judged, eschewing haste. In the Finale, young Camilla Tilling's straight, fresh, even tone makes a more positive impression on the record than it did at the sessions, which I was privileged to attend. Her simple, direct delivery is winning, and, in the patter section, she outdoes even Haitink's Sylvia McNair (Philips 434 123-2) in infectious zest.

These performances substantially improve on Zander's intelligent but inconsistent Ninth (Telarc 80527, 3 CDs, also including a lecture disc); I look forward to further installments of what promises to be a distinctive series.

S.F.V. (Jan. 2002)