Hartmut Haenchen recorded this symphony with his Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra back in the 1990s, a recording available now only in a box of the symphonies from Brilliant. I have found him to be a sympathetic interpreter of Mahler, though he hasn’t produced recordings that present a distinctive interpretive voice. Of the three symphonies thus far documented on recordings, the Fourth is the best (reviewed in Fanfare 33:1). The La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra is the orchestra of the Brussels royal opera, named for the building in which its concerts are held. Haenchen’s performance is characterized by moderate tempos and a straightforward approach to Mahler’s music. He uses Mahler’s original plan for the middle movements but eliminates the third hammer stroke (said effect is quite good: an enormous wooden hammer thwacked against a wooden crate). Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to distinguish it from most other decent but not particularly notable performances. Its video competition includes performances by Bernstein in Vienna (DG) and Abbado at the Lucerne Festival (EuroArts). While Haenchen’s sonics can match the dated sound of the Bernstein, the latter has both the benefit of greater insight into Mahler’s music and the Vienna Philharmonic. Abbado’s performance is superior in many ways, not least among them his use of countless shades of dynamic contrast to underscore and highlight, as well as his command of rubato. Haenchen’s video would make a good introduction for the piece, if the listener then graduated to either of the other two for deeper understanding of Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony.
The sound, in its stereo version (it’s available in DTS surround as well), is on par with a decent CD, but no better. The soundstage is narrowly focused, and instrumental detail is often obscured; essentially effects like the cowbells, xylophone, glockenspiel, and celesta are practically inaudible. The production can’t stand up to the Abbado/Lucerne with its brighter, fuller, and more detailed sound production.
The booklet included with this DVD contains a “letter” by Gustav Mahler, explaining the genesis and psychological meaning of the symphony; it’s a letter that Mahler never wrote, being instead a creative fiction concocted by the conductor. Haenchen’s other contribution, which I think is more relevant, explains his rationale for performing the middle movements as he does.