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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.4 (Part 1)

I’ve always found the Fourth Symphony of Mahler to have a similar—if not quite as pronounced—problem as Beethoven’s Fourth: its two neighbors are too famous and too overbearing. On one side the oddly entrancing, over-long third symphony casts its very own spell, making No.4 look like a rather ‘normal’, conventional symphony: three movements capped by the Wunderhorn text “Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden” as a small fourth movement doesn’t raise any eyebrows after symphonies two and three. And if relative normality be desired, the showier Fifth with the all-too-famous Adagietto gets more of the limelight. Alas, this personal perception is not borne out in reality: After the First, the Fourth Symphony remains the second most recorded and one of the three most often performed symphonies[1].

Every time I hear the Fourth it charms me utterly only to fall back into a certain degree of obscurity right after it finishes. It’s not sardonic or sarcastic nor even very tragic: it is a fairly relaxed symphony. Classical in build, its seven themes offer mostly tender, light, music—not the expected Mahlerian grandiosity; different from everything that came before. Adorno calls it the “monad in relation to the other symphonies”. The reasons that make it the most popular now are the same that it has suffered for during its critical and popular inception: Instead of continuing the evermore daring-bigger-louder-more grandiose trend, Mahler turns his back to the ‘shock and awe-symphony’ to a delightful four-movement symphony of—by his standards—moderate size and length: A work of happy, (almost) untroubled mood; the ‘Haydn Symphony’ among Mahler’s symphonies.

It wasn’t thought delightful at all to the initial audiences. They had just about gotten used to—and more importantly: expect—the bombast… and now they were missing it, chiding the Fourth for what the first two symphonies were chided for not being. Was it because of the naïveté of the Fourth? Or because they thought he was mocking or affecting innocence, or because they felt uncomfortable thinking that he might for once not parody a blissful state? I know it took me a while to overcome its sleigh bells, present enough to make the first and last movements of the Fourth suitable for pre-Christmas broadcasts in shopping malls.

Henri Louis de La Grange calls the work a “virtuoso piece for orchestra [the character of which] gives each musician [in it] the role of a soloist.” I have yet to hear a performance on record that bears this out with the same perspicuity as de La Grange’s statement, but I did hear a live performance with Daniele Gatti and the Munich Philharmonic that displayed all that and then some. Together with the recent Haitink recording (Best of 2008), the concert has done a lot for my appreciation of this superficially simple, but possibly most complex Symphony of Mahler's. (Gatti also has a very fine, but not remotely as unique or daring, out-of-print recording of the Fourth.)

[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 "Windsor Elongated"

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