Mahler's Fourth Symphony (1892/1899-1900) is his sunniest, vastly less concerned with existential questions and therefore less laden with angst than all his other symphonies. There are some shadows in the first two movements, but the lengthy slow movement is gorgeously lyrical, and the finale (originally written in 1892 for the Third Symphony) is a setting for soprano of "Lied der himmlischen Freuden" (Song of the Heavenly Life" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn), a child's amusingly prosaic description of heaven. It's also his second-shortest and much the shortest of his vocal symphonies (under an hour in most readings, and yes, by Mahlerian standards, that counts as short). Furthermore, it's in the most standard four-movement symphony form. All of these things combine to make it his most immediately accessible symphony. It thus has been many listeners' entry point into his highly personal sonic world. It was premiered on November 25, 1901 in Berlin, with the composer conducting.
In the wake of the Fourth's premiere, a musicologist requested an analysis of the work; Mahler deputized his assistant, conductor Bruno Walter, to respond. As related in the invaluable Walter biography by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky, A World Elsewhere (Yale, 2001), Walter said that the first three movements "were to be taken primarily as absolute music. Was a program really needed, Walter asked (speaking for Mahler), 'in order to understand a movement that has a first theme, a second theme, a development section, and a recapitulation? Or a Scherzo with Trio? Or an Andante with Variations?' ... Then, having made his point, Walter surprisingly allowed that the piece could indeed suggest many possible extramusical scenarios. The opening three movements, for example, could portray a heavenly existence, anticipating the text of the last movement. The first movement, full of joy, might suggest a man who is experiencing the heavenly life, while the second movement could be entitled 'The Angel of Death Plays His Dance,' with Death fiddling us up to heaven. The third movement might call to mind Saint Ursula, that most serious of saints, smiling and laughing at the prospect of heaven." It's hard not to assume that Mahler approved of this interpretation, and perhaps even dictated it.
Regarding the soprano part in the fourth movement, Mahler himself said, "She must be capable of singing with a naïve, childlike expression, and with particularly good diction!" As we will see, casting this part has been the Achilles heel of many otherwise great recordings. Interestingly, we can sort of hear Mahler's own interpretation:
The Welte-Mignon company perfected the most refined piano roll system; where other piano rolls merely replayed the notes, a Welte-Mignon "reproducing piano" also captured tempo, dynamics, and pedaling. This album contains all four of Mahler's Welte-Mignon recordings, including his reduction of the finale of the Fourth. Obviously he could only record the piano part with this system, but since it can be played back in the present time (which also means high fidelity), a modern singer can be accompanied by Mahler's piano roll, which is exactly what we have here. Yvonne Kenny is not the soprano I would have chosen, but she's more than adequate; Mahler was no virtuoso pianist, but what we get here is invaluable in providing tempos and proportions, though of course his piano performance may be faster than his orchestra performance. That said, it's only the tiniest bit shorter than Walter with Halben (below). This is a fascinating historical document.
Mengelberg brought Mahler to Amsterdam to conduct the Fourth in 1904, and took copious notes on the performance. Though with such a freewheeling conductor at the helm, it's impossible to say how much of that experience we can hear in Mengelberg's 1939 live reading, it is nonetheless a must-hear; the strings play with luscious portamento swoops before such ur-Romantic gestures were stricken from orchestras' vocabulary, and the interventionist conducting leaves no moment untouched, with frequent and drastic tempo shifts far beyond anything a modern conductor would dare. He imbues the symphony with a certain grotesqueness that is not un-Mahlerian, though this is not a work where that aspect is as obvious beyond the Scherzo. Alas, as in so many performances, the soprano, Jo Vincent, has nothing like the naïve, girlish sound Mahler wanted; actually, she sounds rather matronly. That complaint aside, this is a unique reading that needs to be heard.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Vienna Philharmonic/Bruno Walter (Arkadia, 5/25/60)
Walter was even more strongly connected to Mahler, having met him in 1894 and become his assistant in 1901. Although after Mahler's death his music waned in popularity, Walter faithfully performed several of the symphonies, with the Fourth being one he returned to especially often. Thus, though he only made one studio recording, the 1945 one listed here, a number of concert recordings have found their way into print over the years.
The soprano in the 1945 recording, Desi Halban, had a Mahlerian connection: her mother was the famous coloratura soprano Selma Kurz, who had an affair with Mahler in 1900 and might have married him if not for the Vienna Court Opera having a policy against its members marrying each other. She continued to sing in many of Mahler's opera productions there. Once again, however, Halban is not the type of singer suited for the finale of the Fourth, though Sony's Bruno Walter Edition CD includes her singing eight Mahler lieder (with Walter accompanying on piano) that show she could sound excellent in his music; it's just that her pronounced vibrato, tight and fast, is far from girlish. The NY winds are a bit of a problem as well, with some tart tuning at times, especially in the opening movement.
It's a recording well worth hearing nonetheless. Walter's Fourth is full of Viennese charm and grace, the New Yorkers phrasing Romantically at times; even though by then portamento was being phased out, there are light touches of it from the violins, and rather more from the first chair when he's soloing. Walter is less interventionist than Mengelberg, but who isn't? While he's steadier in tempo from measure to measure, he's still got plenty of personal touches to contribute, and the tautness of his overall performance (while certainly not stinting on gentle beauty in the slow movement) is refreshing. The Scherzo misses any sardonic flavor, but the third movement is quite detailed, with just enough chiaroscuro to add tension. This is a historically important recording with plenty of musical value as well.
The soprano in the 1960 recording, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, is even more ill-suited to the finale's text, but the performance is otherwise excellent. Although nobody knew for sure that it was Walter's last performance in Vienna (which turned out to be the case), given his advanced age (85), the thought was on many minds, perhaps including the members of the orchestra. Walter lingers over phrases more here than he had 15 years earlier in New York, but this may not just be a matter of age; with an orchestra that can provide such distinctively colorful timbres, such lingering pays greater dividends. The portamento is not only in the violins, it's heard from the other string sections as well, and quite affectingly from the cellos in particular. This is a far more characterful reading than in '45. The Scherzo is vastly more unsettling. The slow movement is positively elegiac (despite a bit of sloppy intonation in the climax before the end, and scratchy violin tone on the long-held last chord). Schwarzkopf tries to turn her part into a flashy demonstration of virtuoso singing, which is almost impossible to bear at times, not for being badly sung, but for being arrogantly misguided. (She mars Walter's almost-as-moving performance in a 1952 concert with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra [Music & Arts] slightly less, with fewer strange quirks; the granitic recording of another fine first-generation Mahlerian, Otto Klemperer [EMI], is also less recommendable due to her participation), the dramatic orchestral accompaniment is sufficiently interesting to keep me listening. (While the edition I have is on the Arkadia label, the entire concert, which also included Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, has been issued on the Music & Arts label as a two-CD set, perhaps with better sound -- on Arkadia, peak moments are prone to distortion.)
There are many parallels between Mahler and Bernstein: simultaneously powerful music insiders yet Jewish outsiders, conductors and composers, hyper-Romantic, neurotic and given to excess, intellectual yet emotional -- and both led the New York Philharmonic to great acclaim. Bernstein, like his early mentor Dmitri Mitropolous, was a strong advocate for Mahler before audiences had accepted these epic works, and it was Bernstein's emotional 1960s interpretations that finally sold the American public on Mahler. The Fourth was Bernstein's first Mahler recording. Neither of his Fourths is entirely successful. This one is rather bland in the first movement, but is otherwise commendable, with Reri Grist (the soprano soloist in the finale) appropriately light-voiced but more unpolished than most listeners would like. The DG remake, with a much better opening movement, turns off many collectors with Bernstein's eccentric use of a boy soprano in the finale (if you're going to use a youngster, why not a girl, which is what Mahler wants the part to sound like?). Despite its problems, the first version will thus be preferred by most listeners, but there are many better readings.
At this point, readers may be thinking, "Just tell us where we can hear the fourth movement sung best." Right here, that's where. Dawn Upshaw comes as close to sounding like a naïve young girl as a trained adult singer will. After the Mengelberg and Walter recordings, Dohnanyi's interpretation may seem rather smooth, but it is not insensitive or bland. The dramatic bits are not as explosive, it's true, but the Cleveland Orchestra plays with luxuriant beauty.
In the first movement, the primary virtues of Zander's reading are already apparent: very expressive phrasing (especially by the solo violin), wide dynamics, and Zander's ear for detail. The Philharmonia brass' intonation is a bit ragged, and the timpani are out of tune at their most prominent point, near the end of the third movement, but Zander gets them to communicate his deeply emotional interpretation. There are some shadows in this work -- it's not all sunshine and heavenly visions -- and unlike Dohnanyi, he gives them their due too. The solo violin is quite pungent in the Scherzo, but there's a sense that attention to detail saps the movement's momentum. Camilla Tilling is a pronounced asset. Vocally, her tone is sufficiently light to almost achieve Mahler's desired effect (if her vibrato were less strong, she'd be a better fit), with an apt daydreaming quality to her phrasing in the more languorous sections. But Zander overplays the contrasts in this movement, making it heavier and more portentous than Mahler may have intended. (On a free second disc, Zander discusses the work in great detail regarding each movement.)
This comes very close to wresting my top recommendation away from Upshaw/Cleveland/Dohnanyi. Tilson Thomas conducts a much more expressive performance, and unlike Zander, his attention to detail doesn't overwhelm the music's inner tension of line. But he does bog down in the slow movement, drawing it out at even greater length than Walter in 1960. But Claycomb, if not quite in Upshaw's class, is extremely good, with an apt tone that never turns too heavy. If Dohnanyi's slightly generic leadership isn't good enough for you, this is the digital Fourth to get.
There are many other excellent Fourths that, aside from their sopranos to varying degrees (all more than adequate), are recommendable. Some other favorites of mine from the stereo era:
Margaret Price/London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein (EMI Classics)
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer who most recently wrote a three-part song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo.