An Elegant Mahler 4 from Bychkov/Czech

Mahler: Symphony No. 4

  • Semyon Bychkov (conductor); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Recorded 2020
  • Pentatone PTC 5186 972 (1CD)
  • Reviewed as a 16-bit/44.1 kHz download

With this release, the Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov embark on purportedly the first Mahler cycle since Vaclav Neumann’s on Supraphon thirty years ago. This fact has been cited as an impetus to begin this cycle, along with the usual claim to the orchestra’s pedigree in Mahler (Mahler was Bohemian by origin and premiered the 7th symphony with this orchestra).

While this may be true taken at face value, the implication that goes with it — that the Czech Philharmonic performing Mahler has not been well documented on recordings — is patently false. In fact, few other orchestras have recorded so much Mahler in the intervening years. Neumann himself almost completed another cycle (barring 8 & 9) between 1993 and 1995, just before his death, and conductors as diverse as Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi (1-3, 5, 7), Vladimir Ashkenazy (6, 7, 9), Zdenek Macal (all except 8), and Eliahu Inbal (1, 5, 7) have all subsequently set down their Mahler interpretations with the orchestra before Bychkov. They just happen to have been recorded by a label that remain under-distributed in the West: Exton, previously Canyon Classics. All of which is a long way of saying that the fact that the orchestra did not complete a cycle after Neumann’s should not in itself be a selling point.

What remains undisputed, though, is the orchestra’s proprietary command of Mahler’s idiom, a quality informing all those recordings and which, on evidence in this performance, remains undiminished. The Czech Philharmonic’s mahogany sonority seems tailor-made for Mahler’s music, the warm strings and songful brass creating a perfect foil to that gem of a woodwind section, sporting rich, mellow flutes as well as particularly fruity bassoon and clarinet playing. And here they simply shine — listen to their impish interjections in the Scherzo (Track 2), say, at exactly 5 minutes. Coupled with the orchestra’s innate transparency and perfect sectional balance, this allows countless details to emerge naturally, and the sheer sense of communication and give-and-take between the players makes them sound as if they were playing chamber music.

Under these circumstances, the orchestra does not need much coaxing to realize Mahler’s intentions; any heavy-handed intervention from the podium would most likely be a distraction. Happily, Bychkov understands this, and he is perfectly content to take a back seat to let the orchestra shine. Bychkov does elicit a generous amount of portamenti in the strings, especially in the middle movements; rather than being excessive, I see it as a conscious (though not self-conscious) attempt to imbue the music with some healthy schmaltz and Viennoiserie. Overall, though, there are no big surprises interpretively; elegance and restraint is the watchword, at least most of the time. Thankfully, Bychkov does let loose in the climax of the first, and especially in the third movement (at 17:45 of Track 3) where the ringing trumpets, pealing horns, and pounding timpani really do offer a glimpse of the heavens opening, just as Mahler intended.

So far, things are looking good: a Mahler Fourth that is tastefully conducted, stylishly played, and delicately sung by Chen Reiss in the last movement. And indeed all would be well were it not for the wealth of great Fourths on record, against which this recording fails to measure up. Mahler’s Fourth may seem the most refined and classically poised of all the symphonies, but beneath the glitzy surface lurks many sinister, grotesque elements in the first two movements, as well as some truly tormented emotions in the third. The greatest interpretations of the piece take pains to reveal such aspects of the score; Bychkov’s dapper, emotionally cool approach does not. Thus we are hardly fazed when the woodwinds and horns come shrieking in and the muted trumpets blast at rehearsal number 11 in the score (7:13, Track 1), nor are we moved by the outpouring of grief in the middle of the slow movement (11:30, Track 3). Compare these moments with Jurowski, Chailly, or Previn in the former, and Maazel in the latter, and the inadequacies of Bychkov’s more matter-of-fact perspective become telling. In fact, you don’t need to look far afield to find a great Mahler Fourth: Zdenek Macal’s 2006 recording with this very orchestra, while not as perfectly played as Bychkov’s, manages to reveals the score’s unsettling undercurrents with so much more character and vividness, while operating within a similarly discreet and genteel interpretative framework.

Pentatone’s recorded sound, too, is problematic. Much like the interpretation, it’s very clean and clear, but also a bit sterile, which makes the string section sound rather small and undernourished. But the biggest issue is that the low cellos and double basses seriously lack presence; at times they sound as if only one musician of each section showed up to the sessions. Thus, the jaunty, quiet ascending passage 1 minute into the first movement seriously lacks the oomph that most other recordings (and Macal’s) have, and when the bassoons double them (e.g., 8 minutes in) they are all you hear. Admittedly this issue could be fixed through listening through more bass-oriented systems (I didn’t experience the problem with my HD6xxs to such a degree as I did with my PP8s), but clearly the responsibility for correctly tuning the recording lies with the engineers. In Mahler of all composers, where so much melodic and thematic detail reside in these bass lines, such reticence is disconcerting and frankly inexcusable.

So where does that leave us? It’s impossible to deny the virtues of this recording, primary lying with the Czech Philharmonic which play to the manner born. For many listeners, this recording would indeed be their first exposure to the orchestra in Mahler, and I would imagine that they would be hardly disappointed in that regard. Yet when all is said and done, everything else — the interpretation, the recording — is rather ordinary and adds nothing new to the considerably congested pantheon of great Mahler Fourths. Overall, then, a nice-to-have, rather than essential, recording, and a decent start to what I hope will be a successful complete cycle.


This inaugural recording of Bychkov’s Mahler cycle is worth hearing for the Czech Philharmonic’s distinctive playing. Yet Bychkov’s cultivated, level-headed approach fails to reveal the darker emotional aspects of the score, nor does the recording capture the basses with ideal impact.

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