Semyon Bychkov’s Mahler series with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has got off to a brilliant start. It’s a very crowded field, so what makes these new discs contenders? The CPO are one of the few European orchestras with an individual sound: their wind playing still carries the balmy sounds of Bohemia and brass and horns have a characteristic pungency. There’s also the outstanding sound quality from audiophile label Pentatone, made in Prague’s Rudolfinum, captured in CD and Super Audio (SACD) sound. For those with suitable equipment the latter are especially impressive.
In Symphony No.4 (★★★★★) it’s vital to get a singer with the qualities Mahler wanted for the concluding child’s vision of heavenly life. Being a great singer is not sufficient nor is opulence, power, or beautiful tone. Margaret Price, Kiri Te Kanawa and Renee Fleming have all those qualities in abundance but were not “capable of singing with a naive, childlike expression” in their recordings of the work, which is what Mahler asked for. He also specified that the ‘Wunderhorn’ texts be sung “without irony”, which disqualifies Elisabeth Schwartzkopf's contrived archness for Klemperer. For Bychkov the Israeli soprano Chen Reiss is just about perfect with a pure almost vibrato-less sound, fresh and innocent. Combined with lustrous orchestral playing the finale is the symphony’s crowning glory. For individuality of playing, the right soloist and wide-ranging SACD sound Bychkov rivals Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra recording with Swedish soprano Miah Persson.
In Symphony No.5 (★★★★★) Bychkov’s recording is up against another superbly recorded SACD, by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska. Both conduct the funeral march with the vehemence and processional character (“Kondukt”), without dragging, that Mahler specified. Where Bychkov scores over Vanska – and virtually all other recordings – is in his pacing of the famous Adagietto. Mahler marks it “sehr langsam” (very slowly) which has encouraged conductors over the years to play it at such a moribund pace that it’s transformed from a musical love-letter to Mahler’s wife Alma into a dirge. A century ago Mahler’s pupil and friend Bruno Walter thought around eight minutes was right – Haitink’s 1980s Berlin recording took fourteen. Bychkov’s 9.06, compared to Vanska’s lovely-but-slightly torpid 12.36, sounds utterly convincing: beautiful, passionate and flowing. Bychkov is no speed merchant though, his Rondo Finale (15.58) is slower than Vanska and Jonathan Nott’s Bamberg disc but he elicits some wonderfully rumbustious, unbuttoned and joyous playing from his Czech orchestra.