Imagine a banquet where anything and everything is available. Beans and asparagus by the bowlful, apples, pears and grapes ripe for harvest, venison and hare running around the table, ready for roasting, fish come swimming with joy to be caught, and wine flows freely. St Cecilia provides the music, and eleven thousand virgins are the dancing girls.
This is a child's view of heaven, from the German folk-poem Des Knaben Wunderhorn
(The Youth's Magic Horn) that was the inspiration for much of Mahler's work, culminating in his Fourth Symphony.
Mahler originally set this poem to music as an orchestral song and later toyed with the idea of adding it as the seventh movement to his Third Symphony (making it over 2 hours long!). It finally came to rest, unaltered, as the 4th movement of the Fourth Symphony, and despite it being right at the end of the work, forms the framework of the entire symphony.
And it is the theme of the poem that makes this symphony different to all the other Mahler symphonies.
Mahler's life was plagued by ill health, the death of a loved daughter and financial and professional woes. Dark disturbing thoughts pervade most of his symphonies, but not the Fourth.
This is Mahler's sunniest, most accessible symphony. And his shortest, too.(Not insiginificant, since most of his other symphonies require the services of two CDs).
Mahler's task is to complement the naiive, childlike tone of the poem, but also the convey the ethereal lightness of heaven. The orchestration is light (for Mahler) and the instrumentation unique, with bells and flutes and pianissimo strings. The soprano solo adds the final heavenly quality.
This recording is part of Lorin Maazel's complete Mahler cycle from the 1980's, often critisized for its unusual, or even bizarre interpretation. His Fourth Symphony, however, wins almost universal praise. It is unique amongst Mahler's symphonies, and needs to be played differently to the others. Maazel seems to have captured its simple folk nature better than any other recording. The tempi are unhurried, the highlights unforced and the whole work has a breezy, spring-morning feel.
But surely the jewel in its crown is Kathleen Battle in the final movement. Her singing has the innocence and wonderment of a child, her voice glowing and bell-like, and her performance polished, immaculate. Battle here is light and perfect; it is her performance that makes this recording special.
We have given this recording the much-coveted and rarely awarded 5 gramaphone rating. It is truly an exceptional CD. Even if you thought Mahler was too morbid and heavy, and even if you are normally scared off by the fat warblings of sopranos, you will be pleasantly surprised, and hopefully enraptured by this recording.
Choose a comfortable armchair, on a quiet evening when you cannot be disturbed, turn out the lights, close your eyes and from the very first bell-chimes, prepare to be transported to another world.
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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.4 in G major
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
- I - Bedächtig, nicht eilen (18:02)
- II - In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (9:28)
- III - Ruhevoll (22:31)
- IV - Sehr behaglich (10:40)