When Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in 1901, not everybody liked it. Because today it’s probably Mahler’s most popular work, that may seem surprising. Modern audiences generally consider the Fourth one of Mahler’s most accessible works, it’s so tuneful yet so mature. Equally, the music is on a big scale yet feels quite intimate, and listeners seem to appreciate the music’s contrasts going from grand, eloquent sections to quiet, personal ones, from deadly serious passages to mischievously satiric ones. A lot of home listeners, especially, have found Mahler’s music a good way to enjoy themselves and to show off their stereo systems. Whatever, with this disc we get yet another Mahler Fourth, this one from maestro Fabio Luisi, who gave us such an excellent Mahler First just a few months previous (although, to be fair, that was a newer recording than this one and with a different orchestra).
Mahler meant for his Fourth Symphony to be something more than absolute, nonrepresentational music, and even though he didn’t leave a descriptive program for it, he did leave enough specific directions for each movement to give people an idea of what the music was all about. One of the composer’s followers, conductor Bruno Walter, said of the symphony: “In the Fourth, a joyous dream of happiness and of eternal life promises him, and us also, that we have been saved.”
Mahler marks the first movement as “gay, deliberate, and leisurely,” and he begins it playfully with the jingling of sleigh bells, an effect that also provides a positive sign of hope. In the second movement, Mahler introduces Death, using a vaguely sinister violin motif. He marks the slow, third-movement Adagio as “peacefully,” and it is a kind of respite from the oddities of Mr. Death in the preceding section. In the fourth and final movement, Mahler gives us his vision of heaven and salvation as exemplified by the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler loved. Here, the composer wanted the movement to sound so unaffected he insisted upon a soprano’s part sung with “child-like bright expression, always without parody.”
Maestro Luisi takes most of the first movement at a leisurely pace, perhaps to emphasize the music’s casual charm. But later he tends to rush through some sections, this time perhaps to suggest that not everything would be easy along life’s path. Still, the interpretation doesn’t seem as colorful or as graphic as it could be, being perhaps a bit too leisurely and casual.
In the second movement, Luisi is slower than many other conductors. Nevertheless, he imbues the piece with a keen tone of irony and dread. The whole thing is appropriately weird, if not as persuasively eerie as I’ve heard it done before.
Mahler said the Adagio was one of his personal favorite movements. Its contrasting moods hint of good cheer on the one hand and profound seriousness on the other. There is no doubt this is Luisi’s best moment, too, the music flowing as beautifully as I’ve heard it, a hushed stillness surrounding every note.
Finally, while soprano Sandra Trattnigg may miss a little of the childlike quality the singing needs in the final segment, she is wonderfully evocative, her tone sweet and strong. And Luisi’s fade-out into silence at the end is bewitching.
In all, Luisi’s performance is as compelling as almost anyone’s...almost. But unless one is a Mahler devotee or an avid music collector, there are other, more vivid recordings one can find at low or reasonable cost. Among them, I would count Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips), George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (HDTT or Sony), Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA or JVC), and Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), with additional good performances from Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, Georg Solti, Klaus Tennstedt, Simon Rattle, and others.
Although Luisi’s Mahler First release derived from a 2012 recording, this one comes from a 2005 recording made in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Right off, one notices the sound has an excellent sense of depth, miked at a moderate distance for a realistic stereo spread. It is a tad light, though, and hard at times, yet the limitations are never distracting. There is a good separation and definition of instruments, too, with a lifelike degree of air around them. Dynamics could be a bit stronger, however; they appear a touch restricted in their range and impact.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: