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The second weekend in June brings a rare confluence of thrills for fans of Gustav Mahler: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will play his massive “Resurrection” Symphony, while the National Symphony Orchestra will present his “Symphony of a Thousand,” whose popular title just barely overstates the forces needed to perform the piece. I’ve had my tickets for months. For those daunted by such epic scope, a more modest introduction to Mahler’s art lies in his Symphony No. 4 in G Major. It’s the Austrian composer’s most accessible work, displaying all the facets of his distinctive vision — his love of nature, grotesque humor, scintillating orchestration, integration of songs and instrumentals, and constant search for meaning amid the great questions of life. As with most deeply personal art, we naturally wonder what the composer intended to convey. Few would have asked Bach, Haydn, or Mozart what his work meant, as it was either overtly religious or clearly an abstract arrangement of sound. In the 19th century, though, music became a vehicle for individual expression. Following the conventions of the time, Mahler (1860-1911) wrote detailed programmatic descriptions for his first three symphonies. But by the time he completed his Fourth Symphony, in 1900, his attitude had changed. During his lifetime, Mahler was better known as a conductor, composing mainly during summer vacations. In 1897 he had assumed the grueling mission of transforming the prestigious but unruly Vienna Opera through intensive, exhaustive, and exacting control. Three years later, with the opera hailed as an artistic marvel, Mahler had reached the peak of success; he could afford to snub audience expectations. He condemned program notes as superficial. Rather than hearing the Fourth Symphony as mere illustration of preconceived stories, he preferred that listeners find meaning by applying their own intuition to the internal logic and content of this wondrous work. HEAVENLY JOYS Yet Mahler dropped ample hints to his associates. He analogized the atmosphere of the Fourth to the sky, whose uniform blue occasionally darkens yet always re-emerges fresh and renewed. Though the first movement is grounded in a traditional formal structure (a sonata template), Mahler noted that its components are rearranged in increasingly complex patterns, like a kaleidoscope sifting through mosaic chips. He intended the second movement, a sinister scherzo relieved by two bucolic trios, to be a dance of death led by a solo violin. The violin is tuned a whole tone higher than standard to produce a thinner, spectral sound and should be played crudely, “ wie ein Fidel” (“ like a medieval fiddle”). He suggested that the third movement, a slow set of variations built upon two contrasting but related themes, reflected his mother’s sad face, loving and pardoning in spite of immense suffering. The most radical gesture is saved for the finale — a song that Mahler wisely had excised from his already-massive Symphony No. 3 — toward which all the rest points with subtle thematic premonitions. The text is drawn from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology of folk poetry his sister had given him that had inspired all of his prior output. In lieu of the conventional rousing symphonic climax, the song takes a simple stroll through the joys of heaven and then just fades away. When mankind asks what it all means, Mahler seems to say, only a child can answer. Reflecting the human tendency to demand clarification of the abstract, later admirers have developed explanations to augment the composer’s own vague suggestions. The most convincing came from music critic Paul Bekker, who saw the variegated opening movement as 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 finale as the ultimate fulfillment of our wishes. Philosopher and critic Theodor Adorno, among others, was less willing to set aside the characteristic angst and depth that infuse Mahler’s other work. Adorno found in the Fourth mock emotions that negate its surface calm and do not celebrate childlike innocence so much as mourn its loss. Warm and lyrical, and perhaps an escape from his personal problems, the Fourth was Mahler’s final glance back at the concision and simplicity of bygone music before he plunged ahead into the dense, colossal, brooding works of his maturity. Biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange wrote that the Fourth combines deliberate simplicity with a wealth of invention, borrowing traditional formulas and restricting its emotional palette as a rebuff to critics who already scorned Mahler’s increasingly grandiose gestures. Thus, we find polyphony from the 17th century, the forms and light scoring of the 18th, motivic development from the 19th, and even a glance ahead to the extreme intensification of the “new Viennese school” that soon would transform the 20th. ON KEYBOARD Even if critics could agree on what the Fourth meant, conductors are still trying to discern how Mahler expected it to be performed. His own conducting reportedly was full of tension, poised uneasily between precision and passion, clarity and spontaneity. Though he never cut any records, in 1905 Mahler did make four piano rolls, including the final movement of the Fourth. The result is bizarre, full of quirky rhythm and largely disregarding both the vocal line and the many detailed felicities in the score, thus seeming to violate the express directives he specified for others. It’s tempting to dismiss the roll as an anomaly. Aside from the challenge of condensing a 17-stave score into a work for 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. Since he was far more likely to extemporize when playing by himself than when leading a full orchestra, perhaps the roll is more a riff than a stylistic guide for posterity. AT THE MASTER’S FEET Our next best evidence of Mahler’s own style is equally confounding — the utterly irreconcilable recordings of the Fourth Symphony left by his two primary acolytes. Mahler considered Willem Mengelberg, conductor of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, to be the finest interpreter of his work. The first successful performance of the Fourth was given by that orchestra when Mahler conducted the piece — twice — in an October 1904 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 Concertgebouw performance conducted by Mengelberg is the most heavily inflected of all, utterly fascinating in both detail and overall thrust. The very outset is startling, as Mahler’s poco ritardando (slight slowing) at the third measure grinds the piece to a hugely suspenseful halt before gliding into a breathtakingly smooth transition to the first theme. On the other hand, Bruno Walter was Mahler’s assistant conductor and foremost prot�g�. 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.” And he relied upon Walter to explain his 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 is a world apart from Mengelberg’s interpretation — deeply humanistic, with an utterly natural flow, shorn of even a hint of personal intrusion. At 50 minutes it’s the swiftest on record, yet it has no sense of being rushed. FINDING HIS VISION In finding a place along the vast spectrum between these divergent styles, most conductors lean toward Walter’s ethereal bliss over Mengelberg’s ardent individuality. One of the very few modern exceptions is Simon Rattle, whose 1997 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is personal, probing, and full of alluring hues and rhythms that often depart from the score but always seem within its overall spirit. Other favorites are Otto Klemperer and the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra (1961), which boasts prominent winds and divided violins for added clarity of counterpoint; Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1958), which plays with icy precision; Yevgeny Svetlanov and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (1996), which lulls us before a shockingly powerful third-movement climax and a deeply mysterious concluding song; and John Barbirolli and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1967), which invests the variations with searching questions. Leonard Bernstein, the foremost Mahler specialist of his time, recorded the Fourth twice. His vibrant 1960 New York Philharmonic reading offers the inspired soloist choice of Reri Grist, who sang “Somewhere” so affectingly in the original cast of “West Side Story.” Bernstein’s 1987 live Concertgebouw remake is even more deeply felt, but crashes in the finale with the disastrous use of a boy soprano. That literal depiction of childhood ruins Mahler’s essential artistic illusion of adults pining for an innocence irretrievably lost except in our dreams — or in our music.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Music articles by the author are posted online.

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