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2.1.18

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.4 (Part 2)


This continues Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.4 (Part 1)
and is continued here: "GUSTAV MAHLER — SYMPHONY NO.4 (PART 3)"


Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was begun in a flurry of inspiration during the last ten, very intensive days of his otherwise miserable 1899 summer vacation at the Altaussee. The muse beset him so fast and furiously that he could no longer handle it physically and came down with a debilitating dizziness.

Apart from a rainy summer and initial difficulties finding the necessary quiet to compose, there was trouble brewing at the opera house in Vienna that Mahler was eager to get away from and reluctant to return to. And with his vacation over, he worried whether he could pick up with the symphony where he had to leave it. Henri-Louis de La Grange speaks of “torment” from which this symphony arose, which leads the author to the ‘astonished observation’ that the Fourth is so “delightfully carefree”, a “lyrical intermezzo among his other… tragic symphonies”.

This might suggest that Mahler, like Mozart, was able to compose the cheeriest music under the dourest of circumstances and vice versa. Certainly the darkest, the Sixth, Symphony, composed when everything seemed to go well in Mahler’s life, seems to suggest so much. But for that, the trouble surrounding and preceding the Fourth Symphony’s beginnings was probably too superficial to really bother Mahler, whose “talent for suffering” (Haitink) would otherwise have made sure to express it either here or in “Revelge”, the Wunderhorn-Lied that he drafted a few weeks earlier.

Nowhere in this symphony… will there be a single fortissimo.

Later that summer, Mahler prospected and eventually found the—almost—ideal spot for his summer getaway in Maiernigg at the Wörthersee. It would have to, and did, include a location for his isolated little composing-hut, the famous “Häuschen” that he from now on created his symphonies in. He ordered it built and it was ready in time (the villa itself wasn’t yet) to serve him the next summer when he returned to Maiernigg to finish the Fourth Symphony. The composition had been out of his mind during the work year, but now Mahler found that completion came surprisingly easy and quite naturally to him, as if he had sub-consciously (the term didn’t exist then) worked it out in the time since last jotting down the sketches.

This is also where he told Natalie Bauer-Lechner that the slow movement now called “Ruhevoll. Poco adagio” ‘almost had a religious and catholic atmosphere… Neither in this movement nor anywhere else in the symphony, in accordance with its subject, will there be a single fortissimo. Those who accuse me of always taking recourse to grandiose gestures will be astonished…’

There is something religious about this Adagio (Mahler had also called “the smile of St. Ursula” and likened to his mother’s face as she smiled through her tears). Its serene quality is that of a smile unsmiled, the calm and gentle resignation in good hope of better things to come. Just yesterday I listened to that movement, soft as spring dew on a daisy (with Daniele Gatti, RCA), when I heard a child crying inconsolably outside. It felt as though the symphony wanted to wrap its arms around the child in comfort while letting it continue to cry, knowing that tears are sometimes necessary.



Mahler's Komponierhäuschen in Maiernigg
Photo © jfl


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Symphony No.4, Abbado / Fleming / BPh (DG)


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Symphony No.4, Bernstein / boy soprano / RCO (DG)


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Symphony No.4, Bernstein / Grist / NYP (Sony)

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Symphony No.4, Inbal / Donath / Frankfurt RSO (Denon)


(Brilliant)


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Symphony No.4, Maazel / Kathleen Battle / WPh (Sony)


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Symphony No.4, Salonen / Hendricks / LA Phil (Sony)
The last movement—the Wunderhorn lied “Das himmlische Leben” that was supposed to the the finale of the Third Symphony—and the choice of singer are very important for the success of this symphony. Most listeners would agree that a light, clear voice with earnest innocence—as Mahler demands—is best suited. Artificial theatricality or self-conscious beauty (courtesy of Renée Fleming) can undo three good movements as in Claudio Abbado’s recent Berlin recording (DG). Bernstein opted for the logical extension of the voice’s angelic profile in his last recording with the Concertgebouw and chose a boy soprano from the Tölzer Knabenchor. It’s perfect for the character of the song but the music is difficult and strenuous and the voice should ideally be bigger and more secure. A noble failure - but total failure nonetheless. In the very colorful New York recording, Reri Grist’s strangely boyish voice is an acquired taste but already hints at what Lenny would come up with later.

Since the Fourth is a light(er) work, esprit and joie de vie are important; heft and sumptuous glory can detract. Eliahu Inbal (Denon) gets lightness and irony right, nor is he afraid of some old fashioned portamento. His Frankfurt RSO adds a touch of flying-by-the-seats-of-their-pants which adds character (like some of the earlier Kubelik recordings did) and Helen Donath is a near-ideal soprano for the role. For the longest time—until Bernard Haitink’s new recording came out last year—this was my undisputed first choice in this symphony. Maazel (CBS/Sony) and Salonen (Sony), for better or worse, reign over more overtly splendid orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic and the L.A. Philharmonic, respectively.



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Sy. No.4, MTT / Claycomb / SFS (SFS Media)
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Sy. No.4, Zinman / Orgonášová / ZTO (RCA)
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Sy. No.4, Fischer / Persson / BFO (Channel)
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Sy. No.4, Stenz / Oelze / Guerzenich (Oehms)
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Both have exquisite light sopranos: Maazel the young Kathleen Battle; Salonen, Barbara Hendricks—and both are superb accounts for it. Salonen relaxes the third movement (all four are ‘slow movements’, really) as much as this symphony can take without becoming unduly ponderous. At the time of originally writing this in 2009, Maazel and Salonen had been taken out of the catalog by Sony and I think they still haven't been re-issued domestically. No matter: there are international re-issues and used copies available on Amazon, though, as well as the usual mp3 and streaming options available.

Perhaps that’s an East coast thing: Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media,SACDLogo_Klein2) does the same thing with the San Francisco Symphony: aided by some of the most refined, gentlest string sound—and only at such sound can this successfully pulled off—does he span the movement over an astonishing 26 minutes. (The average is a little over 21 minutes, Kondrashin and Walter have it over and done with in under 18.) With him the music seems to be taking a deep, natural breath after each phrase. No real complaints about his soprano, Laura Claycomb, but nothing to write home about, or lift this glorious performance far above the mass of other wonderful performances.

The opposite is true for Michaela Kaune, who sings on the recording of Zdeněk Mácal with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Exton,SACDLogo_Klein2). I assume her slurring of the opening notes are an interpretive choice, but even if they weren’t, Kaune isn’t special for precision or refinement but for the intriguing character of her voice that makes my ears perk. I can’t even tell whether I like it or not (perhaps not), but it adds an extraordinary—is it reedy?—quality to the Lied.

Recent additions are David Zinman (RCA,SACDLogo_Klein2) with Luba Orgonášová and Iván Fischer (Channel,SACDLogo_Klein2) with Miah Persson, both of which are lovely, played roughly along the interpretative mainstream with similar timings. Fischer’s Miah Persson is more child than angel; her innocence is a playful one with more ‘sandbox’ than apotheosis. Orgonášová is a little like Claycomb: not disturbing, not ideal. Amid the Tonhalle Orchestra’s muted colors in the slow movement, Zinman micromanages the dynamics with extreme care and precision, which he does without disturbing the all-important flow.

Fischer’s slow movement, with distant sounding strings, conjures a wistfulness one might feel at the sun disappearing behind the rolling hills. Both are distinguished by nuance and especially Fischer by the subtle Easter European lilt he so appropriately sneaks into the finer rhythmic details. It’s almost as if no unsatisfactory recordings of this symphony were produced anymore. [Ed. 2017] This holds true for Markus Stenz' recording that is part of his mild-mannered (or rather: finger-print-free), high-quality Mahler cycle with the Gürzenich Orchestra. (His Fifth is stupendous and an easy recommendation.) Calm is the order of this interpretation's day, and the entry into the third movement is particularly well crafted. Christian Oelze lacks some angelic lightness and she hits the music's grooves a little hard and the highs a little strident, but it is also full of character and inherently beautiful and all well within anyone's reasonable limits of considerable enjoyment. Unlike a soprano's contribution in one of the following recordings... [how's that for a cliffhanger?!]


This continues Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.4 (Part 1)
and is continued here: "GUSTAV MAHLER — SYMPHONY NO.4 (PART 3)"
FIND A LIST OF THE Mahler Survey HERE: HTTP://IONARTS.BLOGSPOT.COM/2009/12/MAHLER-SURVEY.HTML



[1] Based on a survey of Mahler performances by three of the four most important, traditional Mahler orchestras, the Vienna, New York, and the Concertgebouw. The First is in all three cases, and by a fair margin, the most often performed. For the European orchestras the Fourth follows in second place before the 5th (Vienna) and Das Lied (Amsterdam), while in New York the Fifth precedes the Fourth which is in turn followed by the Ninth.


The font used in the title is "ITC Souvenier Light"

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