Every musician claims to study and communicate a composer's intentions. For recent work, the task is facilitated by records that can document the author's plan. For music of the distant past, the task is largely reduced to sheer speculation, confounded by impenetrable barriers of lost customs, obscure notation and hopelessly vague literary descriptions. Perhaps the greatest challenge lies in music between these extremes, where we have ample but often confusing clues.
Consider Gustav Mahler's wondrous Symphony # 4 in G major, the most accessible of his works that presents in microcosm all the characteristics of his distinctive vision - his love of nature, grotesque humor, scintillating orchestration, integration of song and abstract instrumentals, and a constant search for meaning amid the great questions of life - lacking only the epic scope that can alienate the unconverted from his other symphonic output.
As with all deeply personal art, we naturally wonder what the creator meant to convey. Few would have asked Bach, Haydn or Mozart what their pieces meant, as their work either was overtly religious or accepted as pure arrangements of sound. In the 19th century, though, music became a vehicle for individual expression, and so audiences demanded to know just what a composer intended to convey. Following the conventions of his time, Mahler had provided detailed programmatic descriptions for his first three symphonies. But after a three-year dry spell, when he wrote his Fourth Symphony in the summers of 1899 and 1900 his attitude changed to reflect his burgeoning career.
Better known as a conductor than a composer during his lifetime, Mahler wrote mainly during summer vacation breaks from his regular employment. In 1897 he had assumed the grueling mission of heading the prestigious but unruly Vienna Opera, which he transformed into an artistic marvel through intensive, exhaustive and exacting control. Once at the peak of his profession, he could afford to snub audience expectations and came to condemn program notes as superficial, preferring that listeners find meaning by applying their own intuition to the internal logic and content of his music, rather than regard it as a mere illustration of preconceived stories. As he put it: "I know the most wonderful names for the movements but I will not betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners so that they can subject them to banal misunderstandings and distortions."
Yet, to his associates Mahler dropped ample hints as to his intentions. Mahler originally conceived his Fourth as a "humoresque" in six movements, alternating instrumentals and vocals, its focus rising from the earthly to heaven. He analogized the atmosphere of the entire symphony to the sky, whose uniform blue occasionally darkens yet always reemerges fresh and renewed. While his first movement was grounded in traditional formal structure (a sonata template) and arose from his intensive study of Bach, Mahler noted that its components are rearranged in increasingly complex patterns, like a kaleidoscope sifting through mosaic bits of a picture. He intended the second movement, a sinister scherzo relieved by two bucolic trios, as a dance of death, harkening back to the baroque technique of scordatura, in which a solo violin is tuned a whole tone higher than standard (A-E-B-F#) to produce a thinner, spectral sound. (Even beyond that, Mahler specifies playing "wie ein Fidel" ("like a medieval fiddle") - that is, crudely with no vibrato or other modern techniques.) He suggested that the third movement, an adagio set of variations built upon two contrasting but related themes, reflected his mother's sad face, constantly loving and pardoning in spite of immense suffering.
The only radical gesture is saved for the finale toward which all the rest points with subtle thematic premonitions - a song written in 1892 that was to have been the seventh movement of his already massive Symphony # 3, but from which he wisely excised it. The text is drawn from Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), an anthology of folk poetry his sister had given him in early 1892 and which had inspired all his output of that decade. While in the traditional form of a rondo, it eschews the conventional rousing symphonic culmination for a simple but ravishing naïve stroll through the joys of heaven. For Mahler, when mankind, full of wonder, asks what it all means, only a child can answer.
Perhaps reflecting the human propensity to demand explanations of the abstract, later admirers have gone further to infer programs to augment the composer's vague suggestions. The most convincing is by Paul Bekker, who sees the variegated first movement as representing a journey through the existing world, the scherzo as the liberation of death, the variations as a metamorphosis through new possibilities of consciousness, and the fourth as the ultimate blissful fulfillment of our wishes. Yet, Theodor Adorno, among others, is less willing to step aside from the characteristic angst and depth that infuse Mahler's other work, charging the Fourth with mock emotions, irony and ambiguity to convey a message of pervasive sadness to negate its surface calm, reflecting his professional frustration at the Vienna Opera and no longer celebrating childlike innocence but rather mourning its loss.
It's hard to believe nowadays that such a thoroughly lovely work encountered indifference and hostility by both audiences and critics. The 1901 Munich premiere, led by the composer, was booed and condemned as baffling and tasteless. The local antipathy may have stemmed from thwarted expectations for a colossal successor to Mahler's earlier work or perhaps the lack of insightful programmatic guidance, but clearly was fueled by the professional enmity created by his reforms at the Opera and further stoked by anti-Semitism (even though Mahler had converted to Catholicism as a condition of his Vienna post - an irrelevant detail to devoted bigots). Yet, even in America, that cradle of tolerance and free thinking, a 1904 New York concert was greeted as a "drooling and emasculated musical monstrosity, … the most painful musical torture to which [the critic] has been compelled to submit."
The Fourth was the last of Mahler's nine symphonies to draw inspiration from his fascination with Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Warm and lyrical, and perhaps an escape from his personal problems, it was Mahler's glance back through the concision and simplicity of music of the past before he plunged ahead to the dense and massive brooding works with which he would conclude his career. As summarized by biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange, the Fourth combined deliberate simplicity with a wealth of invention, borrowing formulas from the past, enriched and transformed with inexhaustible imagination, while its restricted emotional palette could have been meant to rebuff critics who accused him of resorting to grandiose gestures. Thus, we find polyphony of the 17th century, the forms and light scoring of the 18th, motivic development of the 19th and even a glance ahead to the extreme intensification of the "new Viennese school" of the 20th.
But regardless of what his Fourth means, how did Mahler expect it to be performed? Mahler's own conducting reportedly was full of tension, poised uneasily between precision and passion, clarity and spontaneity. While he never cut any records, he did make four 1905 piano rolls, including the final movement of the Fourth, but it's bizarre. His score contains the admonitions that: "It is of the greatest importance that the singer be extremely discreetly accompanied" and "To be sung with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody." Yet, his playing is full of quirky rubato and his arrangement largely disregards the vocal line and the many detailed expressive and dynamic felicities specified in the score, thus seemingly to violate the express interpretive directives he so pointedly specified for others.
It's tempting to dismiss the roll as an anomaly - even aside from the challenge of condensing a 17-stave score into two hands, Mahler never was deemed a virtuoso pianist and may have been unnerved by his first (and only) exposure to the demands of the unfamiliar technology. But since he likely was far more tempted to extemporize when playing by himself in private than when leading a full orchestra in concert, perhaps the roll is best viewed as riffing rather than a stylistic guide left for posterity. Although after the playback Mahler wrote in the studio guest book: "In astonishment and admiration," his reference may have been to the wonder of the technology rather than to the artistic value of the result. (Incidentally, while the homogeneous, staccato playing of standard piano rolls, often corrupted with extra notes, have a deservedly poor reputation for fidelity, Mahler's were cut in the Welte-Mignon process that recorded not only the notes but their nuance and provides an uncannily accurate reproduction of the original quality. Reportedly, he was well paid for his single afternoon effort, but the rolls sold only a few copies; in addition to requiring the purchase of a costly reproducing mechanism, they were prohibitively expensive for mass distribution - $14.50 in America.)
Our next best evidence of Mahler's own style is equally confounding - the utterly irreconcilable recordings of the Fourth left by his two primary acolytes.
Mahler considered Willem Mengelberg to be the finest interpreter of his work. As head of the famed Concergebouw Orchestra, Mengelberg was an ardent advocate, conducting Mahler's symphonies at hundreds of concerts through the years. The first successful presentation of the Fourth was when Mahler conducted the work - twice - at an October 1904 Concertgebouw concert! Mengelberg's copy of the score is a uniquely valuable document, packed with annotations added during the rehearsals, in both his and Mahler's hands, including metronome markings, expressive phrasing and explanations of the composer's wishes. A recording of a 1939 Mengelberg Concertgebouw concert is the most heavily-inflected of all, utterly fascinating in both its detail and its overall thrust. The very outset is startling, as Mahler's poco rit. (slight slowing) at the third measure becomes a hugely suspenseful grand pause before gliding into a breathtakingly smooth transition to the first theme. The sonic quality is fine and the soloist, Jo Vincenis appropriately earnest yet ingenuous.
Bruno Walter was Mahler's assistant conductor and foremost protégé. Upon leaving the Vienna Opera, Mahler wrote to him; "I know of no one who understands me as well as I feel you do and I believe I have entered deep into the mine of your soul." Indeed, Mahler relied upon Walter to explain the Fourth to critics. In his biography of Mahler, Walter described the Fourth as dreamlike and unreal, a fairy tale of airy imponderability and blissful exaltation. His 1945 New York Philharmonic recording of the Fourth is a world apart from Mengelberg's interpretation - deeply humanistic, with an utterly natural flow, shorn of even a hint of exaggeration and, at 50 minutes, the swiftest on record, yet with no sense of being rushed. As an added touch of authenticity, his soloist is Desi Halban, daughter of Selma Kurtz, who had studied and performed extensively with the composer. We also have several later Walter concerts, including a 1953 NY Philharmonic outing with sharp details and accents, and culminating in a mesmerizing 60-minute 1960 Vienna Philharmonic version (the slowest on record!) that's all tender grace and lilting elegance. Timings aside, all the Walter versions share a deeply humanistic vision, shorn of even a hint of personal intrusion or exaggeration. There are a lot of them - as compiled by the mahlerrecords.com website, of the first 20 known recordings of the work (including concerts), Walter led nine!
The very first recording of the Mahler Fourth – and, indeed, only the second of any Mahler symphony – came in May 1930 from a most improbable source: the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo, led by its founder Hidemoro Konoye, a pioneer in bringing Western classical music to Japan (where it flourished). Although he later would record stylish Haydn and Mozart with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1938 (as well as the noxious Horst Wessel Lied in a gesture apparently intended to show wartime Axis solidarity), Konoye's Mahler, despite occasional felicitous touches, is hugely disappointing, with painfully poor playing, a tremulous soprano and uninspired leadership. Disfiguring cuts further compromise the impact of the adagio climax and the soft end of the finale. The overall result is more an historical curiousity than a trail-blazing satisfying musical experience.
Both Mengelberg's and Walter's credentials are above challenge. But which is the more reliable measure of Mahler's own approach, if either? In populating the vast spectrum between their divergent styles, most conductors favor Walter's ethereal bliss over Mengelberg's emphatic individuality. Among the few subsequent exponents of the Mengelberg approach is Simon Rattle, whose recording with the Birmingham Symphony (1998, EMI) is personal, probing and full of alluring hues and rhythms that often depart from the score but always seem within the overall spirit of the piece. Unlike the rest of his current live DG Berlin Philharmonic Mahler cycle, Claudio Abbado's Fourth is more affected than effective, often eluding the pervasive tenderness for quirky emphases, from a violent first movement climax through prominent middle voices to exaggerated word-painting in the finale. The mood is extended, though, with a fitting and generous bonus - Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, inspired by both nature and Mahler.
Many classic objective accounts with relatively sharp detail, steady tempos and subtle nuance tend to run aground by either attenuating the spooky, biting terror Mahler intended with the scordatura solo violin of the second movement or by using a full-blown operatic voice that drains the concluding song of its winsome naiveté. Even so, among my favorites are Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (1961, EMI), who boast prominent winds and divided violins for added clarity of counterpoint; Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (1958, RCA), who play with icy precision (including an especially chilling scordatura) but seem bit brittle; Evgeny Svetlanov and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (1996, Russian Season) who lull us before a shockingly powerful third movement climax and a deeply mysterious concluding song; Jascha Horenstein and the London Philharmonic (1970, Classics for Pleasure), who match the autumnal pace of Walter's final concert with a fascinating balance of monumental mysticism and heartfelt charm; and John Barbirolli and the BBC Symphony (1967, BBC) who invest the variations with an unsettling, searching questions. Other acclaimed accounts, but without distinctive features, include those of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (1965, Sony), Michael Gielen and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (generously coupled with Fritz Schreker's colorful Prelude to a Drama, yet presenting outrageously incongruous Van Gogh cover art, 1988, Hänssler) and Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra (1998, DG), whose precision seems a bit too clinical, even while fostering appreciation for the splendor of Mahler's orchestration.
Of the two recordings by Leonard Bernstein, the foremost Mahler specialist of his time, his 1960 New York Philharmonic reading (Sony) is vibrant, vital and intensely human, and has the inspired solo choice of Reri Grist, who sang "Somewhere" so affectingly in the original cast of his West Side Story. His 1987 live Concertgebouw remake (DG) is even more deeply-felt but crashes in the finale with the disastrous use of a boy soprano, whose literal depiction ruins the essential artistic illusion and undermines the fundamental allure of adults pining for an innocence irretrievably lost, except in our dreams - or in our music.
Copyright 2006 by Peter Gutmann
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copyright © 1998-2006 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.