MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 (Antoni Wit/ Beata Jankowska/ Lynda Russell/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550527)
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Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)
Symphony No.4 in G Major
The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successorsin two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and GustavMahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had afar-reaching effect on the course of Western music, among other things creating asymphonic form that included in it the tradition of song in a varied tapestry of soundparticularly apt for a twentieth century that has found in Mahler's work a reflection ofits own joys and sorrows.
Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in theworld. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrianamong Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child, and the first offourteen to survive, he was born in Kaliste in Bohemia in 1860. Soon after his birth hisfamily moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, hadraised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectualself-improvement, to the running of a tavern and distillery. Mahler's musical abilitieswere developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which endedunhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned fromthe piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.
It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first ata series of provincial opera-houses, and later in the position of the highest distinctionof all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months afterhis baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary .In Vienna he effected significantreforms in the Court Opera, but made enough enemies, particularly represented in theanti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final periodconducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family's futurebefore his own imminent death, which took place on 18th May, 1911.
Although his career as a conductor involved him most closelywith opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composerconsists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at hisdeath, and his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in >Das Lied von der Erde. The greater part of his musicwas written during summer holidays away from the business of the opera-house.
Mahler started work on his fourth symphony in the summer of1899, two years after his appointment to the Court Opera. He had completed his thirdsymphony in 1896 and now, as his stay at the Villa Kerry at Alt Aussee in theSalzkammergut drew to a close, he hurried to write down musical ideas for a new symphonyas they occurred to him, having occupied himself in July and early August with thecorrection of proofs of the Third Symphony
and of the Klagende Lied. The followingsummer he was able to find at least something of the necessary peace and seclusion at hisnewly acquired property of Maiernigg on the Worthersee to complete the short score of thenew symphony, which was orchestrated during the winter in Vienna and first performed inMunich on 25th November 1901. The symphony, which takes as its final movement a songsetting written and orchestrated in 1892, is the last of the three using texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn), theseminal collection of folk-songs made by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano andpublished in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the spirit of which imbues thewhole symphony. The song, referred to by Mahleras Das himmlische Leben, that forms thefinale of the Fourth Symphony had earlierbeen intended as a seventh and final movement for the ThirdSymphony, following the suggested programme to that work as "What thechild tells me" but instead proved the source of a new work. The Fourth Symphony has throughout the suggestion ofbeauty and innocence that the poem itself and its musical setting embody, reflecting notonly the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn butalso the beauty of the countryside in which the symphony was written, the imagined terrorsof the second movement dispelled by w hat follows.
The Fourth Symphony isscored for an orchestra of four flutes, two doubling with piccolo, three oboes, onedoubling on cor anglais, three clarinets in B flat, A and C, doubling with two E flatclarinets and a bass clarinet, three bassoons, the third doubling on contra-bassoon, fourFrench horns, three trumpets, timpani, bass drum, triangle, sleigh-bells, glockenspiel,cymbals and tam-tam, harp and strings. This provides the opportunity for a rich variety oforchestral colour. There is an element of mock-classicism in the first movement of thesymphony, in its thematic material, its textures and in its use of classical firstmovement form, the whole, however, essentially Mahlerian in its apparent ingenuousness,its use of orchestral colour and in the contrasts of mood introduced in the centraldevelopment. The movement ends with a quasi-improvisatory passage for French horn, anapparent reminiscence of Mozart, after which the violins gently lead into a conclusion ofincreasing excitement.
The second movement, generally described as a Totentanz (Danceof Death), is in the form of a Scherzo with two Trios. It makes use of a solo violin tunedup a tone, in the role of a ghostly fiddler, the repeated Scherzo contrasted with theLandler type Trios, introduced by horn and trumpet respectively. The third movement isstarted by the lower strings, suggesting at first the language of Brahms, but going on toa miraculous varying of the theme, in major and minor version, combining with it the widerstructure of sonata-rondo form. The oboe leads into a minor version of the thematicmaterial. The major key is restored for a further set of variations, followed by are turnof the material in the minor key. This is succeeded by a set of variations on the majorkey theme, now in the form of a series of dances, an Austrian Landler, a Minuetand awilder dance, and are turn to material from the first pan of the movement. The concludingsection, with its string arpeggios and harp glissandos leads to a gentle and tender finalpassage.
The song that ends the symphony and from which the mood of thewhole work is derived is in strophic form, a series of five verses, some separated bybrief orchestral intervention. The score carries a worried injunction to the conductor toprovide an exceptionally discreet orchestral accompaniment to the song, a detail notexceptional from a composer who was at the same time one of the greatest conductors of histime and who took particular care to ensure, as far as he could, that his own music shouldbe performed exactly as he wanted. The initial instruction Sehr behaglich (verycomfortably) expresses the general mood of music that reflects the simple ingenuousness ofthe text, without ever faltering into triviality. Das himmlische Leben is a beautifulconclusion to a symphony of singular beauty.
The English soprano Lynda Russell was born in Birmingham andstudied at the Royal College of Music in London, in Paris and in Vienna. Her many prizesand awards include the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship. She has sung in many of theleading opera-houses of the world. At home she has appeared at Glyndebourne, with OperaNorth, Opera Northern Ireland and the English National Opera, with the last of these atthe Metropolitan Opera in New York. She has appeared widely in oratorio and in concertperformances, including a BBC television recording of Handel's Messiah with