Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Solti on Decca/London

More Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

More Symphony No. 4 – Solti

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

Deep bass; rich, smooth strings, lots of lovely hall space – this copy was right up there with the best we heard, and clearly won the shootout for side two. You will hear immediately why this side two could not be beat – it’s wonderful.

More recordings engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson

More recordings made in Kingsway Hall

What amazing sides such as these are doing right is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1961
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments of the orchestra having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the concert hall

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should be enough for now.

And of course, playing the record is the only way to hear all of the above.

An Orchestra Needs This Kind of Space

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with plenty of room for all of the players. These copies are not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings are just plain more involving. When you hear a copy that does all that — a copy like this one — it’s an entirely different listening experience.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Heiter, Bedächtig, Nicht Eilen 
In Gemächlicher Bewegung

Side Two

Ruhevoll 
Sehr Behaglich

About the Symphony

Mahler had begun work on the 4th symphony in 1899 but the ingredients were not all created from scratch. The music of the final movement dates back to 1892 and a particular collection of songs he composed that February. Many were destined to become part of the epic folk-cycle Das Knaben Wunderhorn but the stand-alone Das himmlische Leben (“Heavenly life”) was intended to be an important component of the massive 3rd Symphony. Indeed, melodic material from this song can be found in that earlier work but Mahler soon realized that it deserved more elaborate treatment.

With a technique not uncommon in Mahler’s oeuvre, he used an idea from one symphony to inform another. Much like the trumpet fanfare in the 4th Symphony’s first movement that foreshadows the 5th Symphony, the “Leben” song fragments of the 3rd Symphony’s fifth movement find their apotheosis in the 4th.

There is a decidedly “Classical” feel to the score of the 4th Symphony and the work employs a much more concentrated emotional profile than the prior symphonies. The child’s view of heaven depicted in the 4th Symphony’s closing movement is largely responsible for this overarching simplicity but there is also a sense that Mahler was attempting something novel with this work.

Interestingly, he does not supply explanatory titles to the first three movements (a rarity to this point in his career) but rather allows the music, in all its sunny subtlety, to speak for itself.

Program Notes

Wilkie and the Decca Tree

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mics.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.

Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

His recordings were characterized by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”

See more recordings engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson