MAHLER Symphonie No. 4 + BERG / Fleming, Abbado

Symphonie No. 4

Sieben frühe Lieder
Seven Early Songs
(Orchesterfassung · Orchestral version)
Renée Fleming
Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado
Int. Release 26 Sep. 2005
1 CD / Download
0289 477 5574 6
Claudio Abbado, Renée Fleming and the Berliner Philharmoniker headline live recording of works by Mahler and Berg

Track List

Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Alban Berg (1885 - 1935)
Sieben frühe Lieder






Renée Fleming, Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Audience Applause

Total Playing Time 1:11:34

Claudio Abbado's second Mahler cycle for Deutsche Grammophon is making a strong case to be the definitive digital series to own . . . [Fleming]: the extra richness that she brings to this music is most fulfilling, Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic superbly characterising the accompaniment . . . The playing throughout is outstanding, strings as one and woodwind sharply defined, clean yet characterised, and with plenty of humour in evidence. The slow movement is best, Abbado completely unhurried with the timeless serenity of the strings' first section and yet bringing a mighty surge to the opening of heaven's gates towards the end, a truly euphoric moment as the orchestra is let loose . . . Fleming's notation is spot on, her word emphasis also ideal, and the nature of the juxtaposition of the composers brings out Berg's natural advancement of Mahler's already forward-thinking harmonies . . . no need to hesitate here, for this is a disc that not only gives a wonderful performance of the Fourth but serves to emphasise Mahler's links with the Second Viennese School and particularly Berg. Not to mention Renée Fleming's wonderful voice!

These two performances were taped live in Berlin earlier this year during a series of highly praised concerts. The hype, for once, seems justified. By adopting an unsentimental approach, Claudio Abbado offers radical new insights into Mahler's Fourth Symphony, opening up hitherto unnoticed layers of violence and nihilism in a work all too often seen as reflective and pacific. Renée Fleming is the soprano soloist, savagely beautiful in the final evocation of a child's vision of paradise. The Berg songs are equally spellbinding: Fleming sings them with knowing sensuality, and Abbado links them to the nerve-ridden, erotic expressionism of Lulu, rather than anchoring them in post-Romantic languor.

Claudio Abbado's current Mahler series for DG is producing some exceptional performances, and . . . this live Fourth Symphony . . . is another. Here is an account of great affection, but also of unsentimental lucidity, beautifully played by the Berlin Philharmonic. . . . this new Berlin performance is a very strong contender. Abbado is clear-sighted but never cool, dramatically engaging, and much more alert to Mahler's orchestral colouring than in many of his earlier performances of the composer's music . . . The live recording is detailed and realistic, and the booklet has a fascinating essay by Donald Mitchell.

Here is a treasurable chance to find the Berlin Philharmonic playing with its once customary delicacy for Claudio Abbado . . . the chamber-musical miracle of players listening to each other reaches its apogee in the coda of the scherzo's finely-woven phantasmagoria. DG's sensible balances certainly help . . . we can be in no doubt that the hour of the wolf has struck between so much sweetness and light.

. . . Abbado and the Berlin Phil are on top form . . .

. . . that creamy tone and knowing style transform Berg's fledgling efforts at Mahler worship into an inspiringly beautiful orchestral song cycle.

Dass er nicht gerade zu den großen Theatralikern gehört, sondern eher mit klarem Kopf, kontrollierter Emotion und aus einer gewissen intellektuellen Distanz Mahlers sinfonische Dramen und Weltentwürfe auszuleuchten pflegt, hat Claudio Abbado in den letzten drei Jahrzenten . . . mit unbestechlicher Konsequenz durchgeführt.

. . . Verwicklungen, Verdüsterungen und Überraschungseffekte bringt Abbado denkbar plastisch und dennoch ganz undemonstrativ zur Geltung. Seine Aufführung überzeugt umso mehr, als die Berliner Philharmoniker eine makellose, ebenso klangsatte wie transparente Orchesterleistung erbringen.

. . . dans cette ¿uvre, la virtuosité d'Abbado est avant tout celle de la souplesse . . . Abbado le magicien affûte les contrastes dans la continuité [Scherzo] . . . Lecture ludique de la symphonie, fourmillante de couleurs, fidèle à la « pièce de fantaisie » voulue par Mahler; lecture mystique, aussi, par la simplicité faussement naïve de ses élans infinis . . . la façon unique, féline, qu'a le chef italien de rayonner dans l'orchestre, en nourrissant la grande ligne de détails inouïs, en stimulant à la fois l'indépendance des groupes instrumentaux et leur cohésion symphonique.

Le jeu des bois est chambriste à souhait (quelle flûte solo!), le travail sur les voix au centre de l'orchestre (quels altos!) est tout simplement admirable. La musique nocturne du second mouvement est bien dans le ton de la danse morbide, si mystérieuse et délicate à rendre. La théâtralité sans excès de cette page raffinée est une leçon d'intelligence et de sensibilitè . . . En complément, les sept mélodies de jeunesse de Berg sont servies par un orchestre magnifique de délicatesse . . .

Orchestre léger, bois affûtés, cordes arachnéennes, gestes subtilement moulés dans les rubatos et les portamentos voulus par le compositeur: dès les premières mesures du Bedächtig portées par le magnétisme légendaire d'Abbado, on respire l'air pastoral qui fait de la Symphonie no. 4 une promesse de félicité. Puis l'oreille se souvient des timbres ronds ou piquants, des violons soyeux, du soleil plus chaleureux qui envahissaient la gravure du chef milanais avec les Wiener Philharmoniker, voici presque trente ans . . . Pour ce cycle, restez fidèles à Abbado, mais avec Vienne et Von Otter (DG).

El dírector recrea una versión en la que sin dejar de ser apacible, también se recrea en el lado salvaje de la naturaleza.

Abbado vuelve a la carga . . . magnífica toma sonora.

Se, per uno scarto temporale magico, quella sera MahIer fosse stato seduto in platea e Abbado in piedi sul podio . . . azzardiamo? Forse avrebbe pianto di soddisfazione. Perché in questo CD (strepitosamente registrato live . . .) sta una delle letture più magiche -- è ancora magia il primo termine che viene in mente -- della Quarta . . . La scossa di bellezza estetica ed emotiva è tale che si fatica a trovare qualcosa di sensato da dire: si ha più voglia di tacere, come capita per fortuna, ma di rado, con qualche registrazione straordinaria. Mahler sarebbe andato in estasi per la lucentezza perfetta, rivisitata da una prospettiva un po' sghemba, di quella sorta di citazione della forma sonata nel primo movimento. E, nel secondo, per il violino di Guy Braunstein, sogghignante come in una danza evocata da E.T.A. Hoffmann. Chissà che avrebbe provato nel terzo tempo, là dove Abbado ci immerge in un paradiso perduto e insieme possibile, dipinto da fraseggi morbidissimi e portamenti generosi degli archi, con un dire non melenso né rarefatto, che assomiglia piuttosto a una contemplazione assorta in profondità vertiginose. L'ultimo movimento conclude con l'entrata in scena di una Renée Fleming che anticipa la bellezza sensuale e un po' metafisica di quanto andrà a cantare subito dopo. E i "Sieben Frühe Lieder" di Berg ci catturano, complice un Abbado in stato di grazia, ipnotici e sanguigni insieme.
MAHLER'S Fourth and Berg's Seven

Symphony and Songs
Donald Mitchell

The audience gathered in Munich for the premiere of Mahler's Fourth Symphony on 25 November 1901, played by the Kaim Orchestra under the composer's direction, must have been surprised by what they heard in the opening bars: jingling sleighbells. Another surprise to those anticipating that a symphony in G might reasonably start in G would have been the B minor of the sleighbells' first appearance. But once this tiny, arresting and deliberately mystifying prelude is over, the music drops guilelessly into G major and a long Schubertian opening melody. What ensues is a "classical" exposition, with easily discernible first and second subjects, and even a brief gesture towards the "classical" exposition repeat.

Then in the development Mahler begins to explore textures, tonalities, diverse orchestration and, above all, counterpoint. The high profile of this counterpoint is undoubtedly part of his deliberate neo-classicizing - indeed we hear, for the first time in his oeuvre, an unmistakable anticipation of the complex motivic polyphony characterizing the textures of the next three, wholly instrumental symphonies. Mahler's Fourth stands as a unique manifestation of the symphonist in transition.

At that critical juncture where the development has to find its way back to the first subject and the tonic key, Mahler does something subtle, characteristic and, from a technical, compositional point of view, utterly virtuosic. He combines the winding down of the development with the beginning of the recapitulation. This amazing transition follows the C major climax in which, amidst a maze of bright motivic counterpoint, the trumpets triumphantly articulate an energetic anticipation of "Das himmlische Leben", the song that will comprise the finale. And then, just after the trumpets have begun a little military fanfare, the sleighbells return and bring with them, not only the figuration of the movement's strange little prelude, but also the beginning of the principal theme itself. By the time we reach the double bar, a pause and the tonic G major, we are already mid-way through that long, germinal Schubertian tune. The first limb of the first subject has been recapitulated before the recapitulation proper has even begun!

The Scherzo (C minor) is a sequence of dances: three statements of the main section into which are interpolated two trios. Particularly wonderful here is the extraordinary wealth of orchestral colours, shadowy, sharp and piercing, warm and burgeoning. The solo violin is given an elaborate role: Mahler asks for it to be tuned up a whole tone, to be played loud and clear, always unmuted, and to sound like a rustic fiddle. "Freund Hein" was the folklore figure he had in mind here, whose rasping fiddling beckoned those following him to dance out of life into death. This is a movement suffused with intimations of mortality. But the trios are more relaxed, and behind the solo clarinet tune which we hear at the beginning of the first, there lurks an outline of the "himmlische Leben" melody which awaits us in the finale, a camouflaged signpost of innocent joys to come.

The great Adagio (G major) opens with a passage of such sublime, string-based calm that one might be forgiven for thinking that heaven and eternity had already been attained. But it is not to be. There follows in immediate juxtaposition the strongest possible contrast, a much slower E minor lament in which the woodwind (solo oboe, especially) are now predominant. It is typical of Mahler that he should present the work's fundamental conflict in such unequivocally contrasted musical terms: distinct themes, distinct tonalities, distinct orchestrations, differentiated tempi.

Similarly, he manipulates these contrasted ideas in two distinct ways: two sets of variations on the opening theme, alternating with free developments of the E minor lament; and as so often, he keeps us guessing as to which idea will gain the upper hand. The dispatch of sorrow, torment and doubt is not easily achieved. But the fastest of the variations, with a move to E major, gives us an indication of what is to come. Sure enough, after a return to the calm of the beginning of the movement - which leads us to think that the conclusion is in sight - there is an almighty eruption of E major with horns and trumpets blazoning forth the melody which crowned the development section of the first movement, half surfaced in the trios of the Scherzo, and is soon to be heard in full in its vocal form, the pre-ordained goal towards which the symphony has been systematically progressing.

That goal is the finale, Mahler's setting of the "Wunderhorn" poem, "Das himmlische Leben". It is a dazzlingly graphic setting, and following the text as you listen is strongly advisable: Mahler's detailed response to the images of the poem then becomes fully apparent, for example the unmistakable lowing of the cattle - bass clarinet, horn and solo double bass, a typically Mahlerian ensemble - as they await slaughter. Death, it seems, is obligatory if life is to be sustained, even in heaven, an irony that no doubt stirred the composer's imagination.

From time to time a solemn chorale-like phrase reminds us, amid all the colourful exuberance, that we are in heaven. And it is with the onset of heavenly music ("There's no music on earth that can be compared to ours") that the long-awaited magical shift to E major recurs and we encounter many of the motives and rhythms that we first heard in the opening movement, now transformed into the final version of the song's sublime melody and representing Mahler's ultimate vision of paradise. "This symphony", the critic Max Graf declared after that first performance, "has to be read from back to front like a Hebrew Bible." It was exactly thus that Mahler organized the brilliant reverse logic of his Fourth Symphony.
As we hear the sublime E major that brings the work to its close, we recall the surprising B minor of the sleighbells. But it is a surprise no longer: in fact the dominant minor of E has led us at last to the tonality that has been the symphony's ultimate destination all along. We now understand that the unique journey we have experienced has had its origins in the first three bars of the first movement! As T.S. Eliot once famously wrote: "In my end is my beginning." That is the narrative of Mahler's Fourth.

Willi Reich writes in his biography of Berg, "As early as 1902, after the Viennese première of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Berg with a flock of young enthusiasts had stormed the artist's room and possessed himself of Mahler's baton, which he preserved as a precious relic."

Berg would have known and admired Mahler's orchestral songs, and doubtless there was a Mahlerian impulse motivating him when in 1928 (post-Wozzeck) he reported to Schoenberg, under whose tutelage the Seven Early Songs had been composed in 1907, that he had completed their orchestration. Berg takes on Mahler's practice of a differently constituted orchestra for each song and applies it to articulate the architecture of the songs' sequence: e.g. strings for the third, wind for the fifth and the full band for the "framing" first and seventh.

Although the songs have diatonic roots, one is constantly aware of Berg's harmony floating away and detaching itself from traditional tonality, an impression of ambiguity deriving in part from his use of the whole-tone scale. The end result is a harmonic style of extraordinary richness and sensuality which effortlessly catches the imagery of this chain of lyrical poems from diverse sources, each one of them addressed to Helene Nahowski, later to become Berg's wife. Nor can it be doubted that these orchestral songs pay homage to the composer who had been their inspiration, Gustav Mahler.