A formidable new Mahler Fourth from Jakub Hrůša and Anna Lucia Richter

Jakub Hrůša has some impeccable credentials as a Mahler conductor. I described a gripping Resurrection in February 2020 with the Philharmonia Orchestra as one from the Golden Age; one that had unusual intimacy, something uncommon for Mahler’s mightiest symphony. This new recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the Bamberger Symphoniker shares similar values – and it also falls into that group of performances of the work, with a well-chosen soprano, Anna Lucia Richter, which could be described as hervortretend.

The Fourth – as is the Second – is one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn symphonies. Built around one of the texts, “Das himmlische Leben”, which is sung complete in the final movement, this work is both lighter orchestrated and thematically more moderate than any of its predecessors (and it’s roughly as long as the First Symphony). That should never mean, however, that a performance somehow fails to have emotional depth; tempo relationships can become easily mannered in this symphony and it is in a conductor’s gift to ensure they are aren’t. Performances are often of two breeds – Germanic or Viennese – and only one of these is really what we want to hear. The soprano will always be a personal choice, but I have never warmed to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf on Otto Klemperer’s classic (if very Germanic) recording; typically civilized and urbane, she is overbearing. Sylvia McNair, however, on Bernard Haitink’s Berlin Philharmonic recording manages to meld youthfulness and charm with an absolutely first-rate technique. Schwarzkopf has technique aplenty, but I have always imagined youthfulness to elude her.

The first thing to mention about this recording is that it was made in July 2020 – several months after the Pandemic had begun to affect how music would be performed and recorded. There are no trombones or a tuba in this symphony – only the woodwind and percussion seem relatively ‘outsized’ – so this symphony is not impossible to perform with a complete orchestra as Mahler intended. Largely this is what we have here. One interesting feature of social distancing orchestral players is that the sound is not significantly altered – you do not get a wider dynamic range, or a sense of ‘smallness’ in the orchestra. Jakub Hrůša recorded the symphony at the Konzerthalle in Bamberg so the layout of the orchestra is as close to a normal staged one; this is not how Simon Rattle has recorded some of his LSO concerts at St Luke’s in London. Listening to the recording you probably would not notice the conditions under which these sessions were performed. Indeed, the engineering is quite splendid with very well balanced strings and brass in a symphony which requires it.

It is often (but mistakenly) suggested that this symphony is a homage to Mozart and yet listen to the how Jakub Hrůša opens the work and it does sound rather that way. In fact, he has already nailed his approach firmly to the board – it’s Viennese all the way. The Bamberg strings, barely sounding German here, are wonderfully lyrical as Hrůša shapes their phrases with exquisite taste. So many conductors sound heavy-handed in this opening movement – Abbado is a surprising culprit – but Jakub Hrůša manages to maintain a remarkably steady tempo; it’s flexible when he needs it to be but there is not a touch of idiosyncrasy here. Where Jakub Hrůša’s adoption of the Viennese approach to this music pays off is the coda to the first movement – it bristles with energy; a stark contrast to Klemperer where the Philharmonia seem to be pressed hard, their sinews stiffened.

The opening of the Scherzo, in the best performances, is a monstrous whirlwind with the solo violin (tuned differently) dancing like a devil. It’s a spiralling dervish here. It’s probably not the performance here but my general ambivalence to Mahler’s scherzos in general that this is the weakest movement of the recording. Despite the relative brevity of the Scherzo ­– and Hrůša is by no means languid ­– there is an interminable quality to it. He does manage to balance the orchestra during the Trio – something which many conductors seem incapable of doing.  

Mahler marks the Adagio – which takes up almost a full third of the symphony ­– Ruhevoll, poco adagio. You might struggle with this marking if you hear Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg players at, say, 6:50 in this movement – the sheer weight and breadth (not to say the volume) of the playing goes quite beyond what one may expect. Hrůša is willing to risk dynamics of fff here where other conductors eschew them – Bernstein in his Concertgebouw recording is surprisingly reticent. Some might find the Bamberg players lack some of the grace of other orchestras, but what I find so thrilling about Jakub Hrůša’s handling of this movement is the epic set of contrasts and his willingness to risk those breathtakingly powerful climaxes (although he can phrase a pp just as beautifully). They make the instrumental tutti passages all the more angelic.

The expressiveness and complexity of tone of Anna Lucia Richter’s soprano in the final movement reminds me of Frederica von Stade in Claudio Abbado’s sadly deficient reading with the Vienna Philharmonic (Stade is the only redeeming quality). Richter is not exactly what one might call light in all of this music but that is what is so beguilingly beautiful about her performance here. There is none of the unevenness we get with Schwarzkopf; none of that unwieldy sophistication. The bottom range is so burnished, so brushed with a golden tone it matches the velveteen Bamberg strings; and yet, her top notes, so utterly precision ready and nailed with a formidable power (the high E in ‘Himmel’, for example) are in no way coy. If some sopranos struggle with making sense of the youthfulness in this music, Richter can take this challenge in her stride. There is little to fault here: technically, Anna Lucia Richter is superlative, entirely at one with her conductor; emotionally and musically, this is among the richest sung, and most idiomatically interpreted, of this movement in many years.

Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberger Symphoniker have given us a Mahler Fourth which can stand comparison with the best on record.

Marc Bridle

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.4

Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Bamberger Symphoniker.
Recorded Konzerthalle, Bamberg, July 2020

Accentus Music/BR Klassik ACC30532 [55:15]