Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 4 in G
(Sony BMI Music Entertainment (originally issued on RCA Red Seal), 2005)
[Lisa Della Casa, soprano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond.]

Gustav Mahler was probably one of the more personal composers in the history of Western music, in the sense that his music was a direct outgrowth of his life -- the Kindertotenlieder, one of the most affecting musical compositions in the modern repertoire, was the result of his daughter's death in childhood. His musical vision was the product of a thorough grounding in the romantic tradition as well as the vernacular forms of his native Vienna and its surroundings -- in almost any work by Mahler, there will be at least one section based on the Austrian ländler, with their lilting 3/4 rhythm.

Ernest Newman, one of the foremost music critics of the twentieth century, noted about Mahler that "into each successive work he poured virtually his self . . . and this being of his happened to be of a diversity without parallel in music." Some of this diversity is behind-the-scenes (Mahler was born a Jew but became a Catholic; at age thirty-eight he was the virtual dictator of opera productions in Central Europe, but wrote nothing significant in that vein himself); some of it is apparent, such as the influence of vernacular and folk music in works that are themselves gargantuan in scope and by many considered the pinnacle of the German hoch Romantik. He was a man of contrasts -- while love as a theme is easy to find in his work, there was jealousy and hatred in his family (as perhaps evidenced by the fact that his wife Alma was eventually Alma Mahler Schindler Gropius Werfel, virtually a Who's-Who in the Viennese avant-garde, and that several of his relatives committed suicide), while he himself was what, to be kind, we would call mercurial, a trait also easy to find in the music.

Two characteristics of Mahler's music strike people immediately: they are long, and his orchestras are huge. Both are evident in his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth is not a long symphony for Mahler, lasting a few minutes less than an hour, but it's all relative: Beethoven's Fifth runs perhaps thirty-five minutes, while Brahms' First runs a little over forty. As for orchestration, yes, the forces are immense, but the clarity and balance of Mahler's orchestrations are exemplary: he used what he needed, and never more than he could manage.

All of this comes through in the Fourth Symphony: the only word I can think of to characterize the music is "protean." (Fritz Reiner called it "uneven," but I'm not sure that's the right spin.) Obvious folk elements transformed into late nineteenth-century symphonic music, passages of manic intensity juxtaposed with seductively peaceful intermezzi, the poetic and the raucous, the mystical and the mundane, the bitter and the sweet. Many consider the Fourth a transitional work, or perhaps the last of his "early" period, when the main influence was nature, which is something that somehow, in some way, is there: there is no real "program" to this symphony, such as exists in Beethoven's Sixth, that I'm aware of, but there is a sense of outside-ness, if I can call it that, a freshness cum innocence that coexists in a sometimes uneasy relationship with Mahler's own propensity for dark introspection.

I've never really thought of Mahler as a particularly melodic composer, not in the same way as Brahms or Tchaikovsky, or even Richard Strauss (Mahler's protégé and later close friend of Fritz Reiner), but listening to this symphony, there are passages of such sweetness that one can almost taste them, where his characteristic manipulations of rhythm give way to pure melody. The whole experience of this symphony can be a wrenching one: I always find a certain element of foreboding in Mahler's music, in this work no less than in others -- in spite of the almost childlike innocence of some passages, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. The third movement, in particular, takes on a kind of tragic nobility that has rarely been matched in passages that reinforce the feeling that the worst is yet to come -- and indeed, there are parts of the fourth movement that make me feel like a stretched wire. And then comes Lisa Della Casa's rendition of the sung portions, which have a strong sense of déja vu -- like Mozart, Mahler tended to reuse motifs and themes (and indeed, the section is lifted from Des Knaben Wunderhorn).

As for the recording itself, this is another of Sony's releases of RCA Red Seal recordings on SACD, which is a little bit of overkill: it was recorded in stereo in 1958, so it's not something for the sonic maniac, particularly. Regarding the interpretation, we're talking about legends here: Della Casa, Reiner, CSO. Reiner himself noted his "conversion" to Mahler, which I take as perhaps merely a natural progression toward maturity: like many people, Reiner initially rejected Mahler's music, finally coming around to a real appreciation which shows brilliantly in this recording. Della Casa is flawless, and the orchestra -- well, it's my home-town band, so forgive my enthusiasm.

[Robert M. Tilendis]