Classical music: One for the child in us all

CD: Mahler, Symphony No.4 City of Birmingham Symphony/ Roocroft/ Rattle EMI 5 56563 2
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CD: Mahler, Symphony No.4

City of Birmingham Symphony/ Roocroft/ Rattle

EMI 5 56563 2

Flutes, clarinets, and sleigh bells establish an amiable jog-trot. An air of watchfulness characterises Rattle's way with it. Your first impression - a split second into the piece - is one of circumspection. In three bars time we'll be easing gently into the main theme. This is going to get awfully slow, you're thinking. But check out Mahler's score, and mark well the words: "Bedachtig - Nicht eilen" ("Cautious; prudent - don't hurry"). Then take in Sir Simon's first big surprise. Uniquely, in my experience, the second tempo is faster, not slower, than the first. The marking is Gemachlich ("Leisurely"). But eager, too. The adventure playground of Mahler's youth beckons. And boys will be boys.

Rattle credits his late friend and mentor Berthold Goldschmidt for influence over the tempo-relationships and character of this piece. Four bars in, and already the character of the first movement (and thus the whole symphony) is established. It's as if we are drifting in and out of real time: a day in the life, a life in the day, childhood's wonder, impatience, dreams. The first horn - youth's magic horn - leads on through startling swings of mood and manner. The sprints, the skids, the thoughtful milliseconds, just happen - no rhyme, no reason, just a child's fancy. It's Rattle's (and Mahler's) sleight of hand here that makes it all sound so natural. One moment we're on the rampage to another of those disappointing dead- ends, the next we're snuggling into reverie.

And if you go down to the woods today, beware the bogeyman fiddler. He inhabits the scherzo of the symphony, and you'll know him by his sour, unforgiving timbre (his violin is tuned up a tone). Again, Rattle reminds us that childhood fears are no less real for being the stuff of fairy tales. And when, finally, the slow movement (floating in on a seamless legato of cello sound) delivers us from heartache to ecstasy - the climax a heavenly mirage such as only this composer could have conceived - Mahler, the child, is suddenly Mahler, the man.

Which brings me to my one reservation. Soprano Amanda Roocroft attends our pleasure "on the other side", but she, I fear, is not the most persuasive advocate of the song-finale Das himmlische leben ("Heavenly Life"). It's not so much that the voice lacks purity (though it does), but more than the attitude it conveys is all wrong. Way too proper; unsmiling. St Ursula may have laughed; Roocroft does not. Still, this is a fascinating, often revelatory, performance. Rattle's inquisitiveness should appeal to the child in us all.

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