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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 30, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 44
Great performance, poorly preserved
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Great performance, poorly preserved

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

MAHLER'S
'SYMPHONY NO. 4'
CONCERTGEBOUW
BLU-RAY


When I started watching this Blu-ray disc of a 1986 performance at the Concertgebouw of Mahler's 'Symphony No. 4,' I didn't think I would be able to watch the whole thing. The sound is a fairly spacious stereo but it is seriously marred throughout by a flutter, or gurgle, such as we used to get when the tape wasn't tracking with consistent contact with the tape heads. Solo reed instruments in particular are sometimes almost comical, sounding like the music is coming from under water. The bottom octave is also totally missing, making the bass drum ineffective and the bass viols lacking their true warmth. The video is also of antique quality, extremely low definition, with poor flesh tones, and is in 4:3 aspect ratio.

So it speaks to the quality of the performance that I was held in rapt attention through the whole symphony, despite the poor sound and picture. In lesser hands, Mahler's Fourth can seem repetitious and superficial. But Bernard Haitink leads the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a sweeping, heartfelt reading that never loses focus and frequently delights with effective accents and emotion. The Orchestra is unlike any other, with strong individual solos by first-chair members and an effortless cohesion that never fails. The horns especially, with a woman in the first chair, are spectacular. Though the effect is not apparent in this recording, the Concertgebouw is unequalled in its acoustic. When my husband and I heard a concert there, we were amazed by the combination of extreme clarity emerging from a nonetheless very ambient wash of sound. Unlike most halls with that much resonance, the Concertgebouw suffers no loss of detail and warmth. That detail does in fact come across fairly well in this recording.

To cap off this wonderful performance, soprano Maria Ewing sings the most ecstatic and beautiful solo in the last movement that I have ever heard. I mention some details here of her biography because it is so unusual. Ewing was born in Detroit, Michigan, the youngest of four daughters. Her mother, Hermina M. (née Veraar), was Dutch, and her father, Norman I. Ewing, was an American of Sioux Native American, Scottish, and African-American ancestry. Most sopranos sing this music as a kind of folk music; Ewing makes it a personal testimony to the ecstasies of heaven and all its pleasures. Very special indeed!

If you wish to purchase this performance, and this video is available in DVD format, consider getting that version, for I see no advantage here to paying extra for the Blu-ray format.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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