Jonathan Nott is an English-born conductor, ow 48, who left London to become a Kapellmeister in provincial Germany, an unusual career choice nowadays. He has been rewarded with constant praise in the British press, which greets the Bamberg orchestra as if it were a major ensemble. It isn't, by a long shot, but some aspects of Nott's Mahler cycle are admirable: he gets very clear textures, proceed without fuss, and has the advantage of up-to-date sonics (one critic called these recordings the front-runners in SACD, which wounds plausible listening through two channels). But how can reviewers go overboard for readings that are, well, those of a fairly talented Kapellmeister. This new Mahler Fourth is given on a small scale compared to almost any big-name conductor and orchestra, which is not automatically a criticism--there's room in Mahler's most intimate symphony for reduced expression. Ivan Fischer took a similarly fresh approach with his Budapest Festival Orch. and was similarly praised.
Even so, one hears a lot of Mahler being left out when the playing is this modest and straightforward. Nott underplays every movement in order to achieve a smooth, light presentation. In the devil's fiddle episodes of the second movement he is pointed and snappy, but I still get the impression of the music moving briskly, one foot ahead of the other. If you are used to the lush string body of orchestras in Chicago, London, Berlin, or Vienna, the beginning of the slow movement will seem rather bare bones, and Nott's plain-faced phrasing fails to exploit the hushed wonder of this movement. Mahler's slow music should ache in the heart, and here it doesn't. The finale proceeds at a nice walking tempo, not notably fast or slow; the soprano soloist, Mojca Erdman, has a very appealing voice. She gives us a lyrical flow rather than a characterization of the child's view of heaven. Nott is tasteful ad yet a bit ordinary.
I don't mean to swat at a recording that deserves to make friends, but it's hard to be charitable when so much praise has been lavished on a reading that is agreeable without being exceptional. In this light vein the Fischer has more character and better playing.