I generally abandoned listening to Gustav Mahler at about the time Paul Keating took it up. Mahler was a neurotic (and an unpleasant person) whose neuroticism spills over into his music just as it does with profound, obscurantist French novelists that I read as an existentially-lost teen. What’s it all about Gustav…? But I do make exceptions to my general Mahler aversion*. His 4th Symphony is a gorgeous piece of music and I have listened to Roberta Alexander singing in the 4th movement of it for close to 25 years. When you listen to a particular piece of music, for such a long-time, it becomes the norm and to some extent excludes other performances as being necessarily second-best. (This, BTW, is my single objection to Maria Callas – she is, in a sense, a destructive performer. When you listen to her brand of perfection everything else sounds second-rate!)
But back to Mahler. I recently got to listen to Lucia Popp singing in Mahler’s 4th and I’ve changed my view on first-preference performances. Partly this is because Popp’s voice is so superb (no second-rated-ness here) and partly because Tennstedt’s wild conducting provides such incredible drama. It borders on the psychotic in terms of its frenetic energy. Of course it is anything but that. I couldn’t find a live performance online but here at least is a recording. Extraordinary and my listening to it as I prepared this post is my 6th repetition since I discovered the music yesterday.
Nothing new about this performance – it was recorded in 1982.
* Exaggerating a bit here. I also like his 5th Symphony and will hear Simone Young conduct the Melbourne Symphony performance of this on 27th July at the Arts Centre Melbourne. Nothing like a decent funeral march to warm the blood in the midst of a frigidly cold Melbourne winter.
Update: The lyrics of this movement are very Mahlerian. As IM points out to me they contrast the joys of an innocent young child with the realisation that pleasures depend on slaughtering animals, such as an innocent lamb. The lyrics are consistent with Mahler at his neurotic best though they are consistent with the violent changes in tempo.