Herbert von Karajan, like Fritz Reiner and George Szell before him, is a conductor who came to Mahler late in life, bringing extraordinary insight, freshness and all-around conviction to scores that not so long ago were regarded as the exclusive proprietary domain of a few ordained apostles.
The newest installment in what may turn out eventually to be a compelte Mahler cycle from Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic is the Fourth Symphony, in a recording that illustrates the depth of his commitment to this composer, and reminds us also how much real charm he can generate when he feels it; the soprano in the last movement is Edith Mathis (Deutsche Grammonphon 2531.205; cassette 3301.205).
In much of his work in both the concert hall and the opera house, Karajan has favored an orchestral texture that is rich in a rather general way, at the expense of detail. One of the features of his Mahler, though, is the clarity with which every detail registers. The crystalline texture that is so essential to the Fourth in particular is handsomely and unselfconsciously achieved, every nuance of color, every motif or fragment making its point without any suggestion of spotlighting or staging. How pointedly and yet how spontaneously, for example, that trumpet figure emerges amid the sleighbells and general jubilation at a climactic point in the first movement -- a figure we recognize now as the fanfare that opens the Funeral March first movement of the Fifth Smyphony, and which here may remind us, however fleetingly, "In the midst of life there is death."
Karajan's tempi are on the broad side throughout the work, and yet the music seems to flow as spontaneously as it did under Bruno Walter with his much brisker pacing. The lightness of texture and avoidance of interpretive grandiosity make the sublime slow movement especially effective: The listener is aware only of how naturally it moves, never how slowly.
The one disappointment in this respect comes in the finale. Here, paticularly after the enlivening vibrancy of the preceding movements, one does notice that Karajan is slower than virtually everyone else who has recorded the work. A trace of solemnity creeps into what ought to be a radiant, unclouded childlike vision. Here too, perhaps influenced by the tempo, Edith Mathis, who must have seemed a fine choice for this assignment, sounds awfully mature and womanly, almost as if she were cast as the Marschallin instead of sining the naive Wunderhorn text.
In all, this is still a very special Mahler Fourth, and it is definitely one everyone ought to hear. Those who find themselves put off by the finale will surely be happy with Claudio Abbado's recording, on the same label (2530.966; cassette 3300.966). Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic are scarcely less persuasive than Karajan and his Berliners, and Frederica von Stade, although nominally a mezzo, does show just those light, boyish qualities, in both sound and spirit, that are missing in Mathis' performance.
Alfred Brendel is much younger than Karajan, but has been playing and recording Mozart longer than Karajan has been perfomring Mahler. In the last decade or so Brendel has been remaking for Philips many of the titles he recorded some 20 years ago for Vox, and now he has got round to the Concerto in E-flat for two pianos, K. 365, with Imogen Cooper as his keyboard partner and Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; side two is the Concerto No. 9 in the same key, K. 271, for one piano and orchestra (Philips 8500.408; cassette 7300.616).
While there is a great deal of fine musicianship in evidence here, on neither side does Brendel come out on top in competition with his former self. nHis classic version of K. 265 with Walter Klien and conductor Paul Angerer (Turnabout TV-34064S; Vox cassette CT-2207) maintains its position because the remake is really too aggressive for so charming a work, too hard-driven and heartless. His performance on K. 271 with the Zagreb Soloists under Antonio Janigro, one of the few recordings he made for Vanguard (now on Bach Guild HM-30SD), has become a sort of classic, too, and is similarly preferable to the remake by virtue of its greater relaxation and overall stylishness. It is good to be reminded of these earlier recordings, which continue to be so exceptionally satisfying.