Chailly and the sumptuous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are ideal for Mahler and the first three movements of this recording of his Fourth Symphony are as good as I expected. (Yes, he indulges in lots of rubatos, as one reviewer has noted, but so do all conductors of this symphony, some of the Germans even more so.) Then we come to the fourth and last movement.
In most symphonies, the last movement is the fastest and loudest. In Mahler's Fourth, it is slow and calm: Sehr behaglich (very comfortable) is the tempo marking. Above that, at the top of the score, Mahler wrote: Anmerkung für den Dirigenten: Es ist von höchster Wichtigkeit, dass die Sängerin äuserst discret begleitet wird (Note for the conductor: It is of the greatest importance that the singer be extremely discreetly accompanied). And a couple of pages later, where the soprano comes in, Mahler added the admonition: Singstimme mit kindlich heiteren Ausdruck; durchaus ohne Parodie! (To be sung with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody!). Barbara Bonney and Riccardo Chailly follow Mahler's instructions to the letter and produce pure magic - and the Concertgebouw never sounded better. Kudos to the Decca engineers too, for maintaining exactly the right balance (it is all too easy for a soprano singing softly to be drowned out by a full symphony orchestra, no matter how discreetly playing). This is quite simply as good as it (life) gets.
To fill out the CD, Bonney sings seven early songs by Alban Berg, again accompanied by Chailly and the Concertgebouw. Berg's music is today better known than that of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, much better known than that of his fellow pupil Anton von Webern. That is mostly for Berg's violin concerto, his Lyric Suite, and his two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu. But in his early years, he composed mostly songs. The surprise with the songs on this CD is that, while Berg composed them under the rather strict regimen Schoenberg imposed on his students, they are actually quite tonal and tuneful. As in the Mahler, Chailly and Bonney partner superbly on the Berg songs. This is a wonderful CD. Very very highly recommended.