Mahler Symphony No. 4

performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, Barbara Hendricks, soprano (my hands-down absolute favorite recording of this piece; she’s stunning. Took my breath away the first time I heard her after having listened to many other recordings, but the below with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago symphony is arguably a better performance overall)

So I’m glad we got through the background and lead-up to this symphony on Tuesday. If you haven’t already had a gander at that, you should go back and read up.
I’m super excited about Mahler. I really have to pace myself with his symphonies, because I would have already written premature, preemptive kind of thoughts on all of them by now, especially the seventh… for some reason, but we’ll get to that in another few months. Before we jump right into the fourth though, I do want to draw your attention to something at the bottom of this article. It’s where it should be, but I don’t want anyone to miss it. It’s an interesting potential connection to the fifth…

I have been really looking forward to this piece for a few reasons.

  1. It’s one of the first Mahler symphonies I started listening to without any intent of a deadline or date in mind of when to write about it. And that isn’t really even true. I hadn’t any intention of writing about the first or second when I started listening to them, I guess. I suppose it’s more accurate to say this is one of the symphonies I’ve listened to the longest before getting around to sharing it. That, compounded by number 2:
  2. It’s Mahler’s baby symphony, his tiniest and simplest, in a few ways. For one, it’s the shortest. I think this one does come in under an hour. It’s slightly shorter than the first, in most cases (I think), and it’s also scored for smaller forces (no trombones or tuba). The fourth does have a vocal part, but that aside, it feels overall like a much smaller, bordering on chamber-y type symphony (of course not in the real sense, only relative to his other symphonies, especially the third).
Due to the latter, Wikipedia notes that it is also statistically Mahler’s most performed symphony, stating also that “in recent years the First has gained ground.” This isn’t a competition… but it is worth noting that I would suggest the first or fourth as excellent first exposure to the work of Mahler. We’ll talk about that later.
So it being perhaps one of the most approachable pieces in his symphonic output along with my leisurely listenings have made it a piece I’m more looking forward to sharing than one I’m scrambling to write about (e.g. the sixth, which kind of replaced the fourth in a series of symphonies since I didn’t want to tear the fourth away from its Wunderhorn brethren). So here it is.
It’s also Mahler’s first symphony to be premiered in the 20th century. While much of the conception for the piece started much earlier (at least the Das himmlische Leben was written almost a decade before the premiere), as it kind of sprung out of the third symphony, it was finally premiered in 1901 by the Kaim Orchestra (now the Munich Philharmonic) in Munich under the composer’s baton with Margarete Michalek as soprano. Interestingly, the first recording ever made of this piece was the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo under Hidemaro Konoye, which was also the first electrical recording of any Mahler symphony ever (perhaps because it was the smallest?). Perhaps a more well-known premiere is the Dutch premiere. Who else would it be besides Mahler’s beloved Concertgebouw, under the composer’s baton? That happened in 1904.
The fourth begins quietly and kind of unassumingly, with sleigh bells, of all things. This quieter more reserved opening is also more like its approachable companion the first with its bucolic opening, and in stark contrast with the more violent or epic opening statements of the second or third, respectively. It feels almost cheery. As a first movement, it is in sonata form, and it’s in the key of G major. This is likely one of my favorite Mahler movements out of all of his output. It’s unassuming, thoroughly
captivating, exciting, contrasting, not overwhelming, lyrical, and very easy to follow. I really love it. The woodwinds (flutes and sleigh bells at the beginning), horn calls, sweet strings, everything. It’s delightful. I would probably take this movement (or the fourth of this symphony) alone as a short appetizer-type glimpse for someone to see what Mahler is all about (or at least the beginnings of his about-ness). Something I want to interject here is this moment in the first movement: listen to it, and then we’ll talk about it a bit later.
In contrast, it may seem harsh to say, but the scherzo-ish second movement is probably my least favorite of all of Mahler’s symphonies. It features an unconventionally-tuned solo violin representing Freund Hein, a traditional German representation of death, a fiddle-playing skeleton. There was actually a teeny little hint at this with a violin solo in the first movement (at rehearsal mark 8). I don’t find this movement particularly haunting or eery, but it is certainly a bit strange and peculiar featuring the one-tone-higher violin solo. The accompanying section with clarinet is a melody I really do enjoy, but this movement is just okay, for me. It does, however, play a part in the programmatic progress of the piece, so I can appreciate it there. Otherwise, I find the main Freund Hein theme to be a bit repetitive. Thankfully it’s only a ten-minute movement, and then we move on to the blissful third.
The third movement is a ‘processional march’ in a set of variations. It doesn’t have the spring in its step even of the funereal march from Mahler’s first, and I wouldn’t have described it as a march, but it is a wonderfully beautiful movement, and the longest of the symphony. In comparison with the first symphony with its complicated, heavy final movement being the longest, this is a much lighter long movement, giving the entire symphony a far less heavy impression. It is stunningly gorgeous. When I saw this piece live last year, it was paired with the Adagietto of the fifth symphony, and one can see the similarities. It’s also somewhat similar (at least in its beauty and use of strings, to some degree) to the final movement of the third. It’s so apparent that Mahler is a phenomenal lyricist… his use of strings here (and in the finale of the third and Adagietto of the fifth) is brilliant. While all of these movements have their own… somber moments, especially this one, they’re all beautiful, and this one in particular, as the slow movement of a four-movement symphony, brings to mind the slow movement of the sixth (whether you count it as the second or third). Anyway, enough of that.
The final movement is the real icing on the cake. It is, to me, a perfect execution of what could have been an overdone slathering of something rich and wonderful. To me, there’s so much restraint shown, in the whole symphony, but especially in the treatment of the material in this movement, especially in contrast with the beastly third symphony. This ‘heavenly’ theme is so lyrical and captivating and sweet, and it could have easily been overused. It always leaves me wanting more, a fuller, more lavish, outworking or realization of the themes in this movement, but in such a way that it makes me content with how succinct and tasteful it is. While I do and did and have enjoyed this symphony before without knowing what was coming in the fourth movement, now… the first three movements, as enjoyable and wonderful as they are alone… kind of feel like the supporting acts for this amazing, sweetly balanced final act that brings us to a rather quiet end of not only this symphony, but the composer’s entire ‘early period.’
Most of the discussion about the fourth symphony is about how it sprang from the third, and how thankful I am the composer made the decision he did to give this himmlische theme its own symphony instead of cramming it into the third. It deserves that kind of attention. However, something that has struck me on more than one occasion is its (potential) relationship to the fifth.
As I stated earlier, I attended a concert last year where the fourth was performed (somewhat less than exceptionally) along with the Adagietto from number five (which was performed exquisitely well). In that pairing, one can see some strong similarities between the third movement of the fourth and the fourth movement of the fifth (that sounds confusing…).
It is significant to mention, I guess, that the fourth marks the distinct end of Mahler’s early Wunderhorn period, and the fifth is the beginning of his middle period. So one could see it as a clean break between the two, a fresh start of sorts, but I did see an interesting connection (perhaps entirely superfluous and coincidental) between the two. I can’t actually link in a video to a specific part of the symphony like I did above, so if you haven’t already, listen to this moment in the dramatic kind of tense climax portion of the development section of the first movement of the fourth symphony (linked above). (It’s also worth mentioning here that this comes from a fantastic recording of the late and wonderful Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. They released a DVD cycle of the Mahler symphonies [except for the eighth] that is really quite nice.) Pay attention to the trumpets in that passage (even thought they’ve focused in on the basses), and then go listen to the opening notes of the fifth (conducted by another Late Great, Maestro Lorin Maazel (whose recording of the fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kathleen Battle is also definitely worth a listen, but a bit slow for my taste. Back to the fifth):
Am I reaching here? The opening of the fifth is quite famous. But did you hear the similarities? Sure, that trumpet call is buried, kind of nestled right into the tense action of the first movement of the fourth, but since I listened to them in the order that I did (Mahler’s fifth was the first of his symphonies I did here), it struck me as strangely familiar when it showed up there. Coincidence? Maybe. Perhaps there’s a research paper or some program notes or commentary on this somewhere, but I’m satisfied enough in the fact that I noticed it, and I’m also perfectly happy to read into it as a well-placed connecting thread that spans the composer’s early- and middle-period symphonies. I really love this piece, and I’m realizing it even more as I’m listening to it and talking about it. It’s also one of Mahler’s lighter, more feel-good works. The others, for the most part are truly quite heavy, usually in multiple ways (length or scope or subject matter or style if not all of the above), but this one is really a breath of fresh air almost all the way around.
As a side note, while I feel both mentally and emotionally that this is an excellent first symphony for people to break into Mahler with, a number of people I’ve talked to have had the same sentiment I did: “The second symphony was the one that did it for me.”
It was definitely the case with me, and the case for a friend who played it recently, but for one or two others, it was just… the experience. This is somewhat surprising, in a sense, even though it was the one that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I feel like it’s perhaps… big and overwhelming and sprawling to the point that it might be somewhat inaccessible, but perhaps not. Compared to the second or third (or eighth), this fourth symphony is downright dainty and bucolic (well, it’s bucolic regardless), but that doesn’t mean it’s to be taken any less seriously than the heavier, more intense works.
The fourth is of stunning beauty, really gorgeous moments and a tight, cohesive whole that is the perfect final chapter for the composer’s early period. Enjoy.
(Also, stay tuned for a little concert review that’s Mahler-related. It’ll be posted tomorrow!)
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