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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900)

Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott
rec. 18-22 December 2006, Joseph-Keilberth Saal, Bamburg
TUDOR 7151 [55:29] 


Experience Classicsonline

Mahler completed his Fourth Symphony in 1900, just three years after his appointment as Director at the Vienna Court Opera. The first four of Mahler's symphonies had all been all closely linked with songs: the First with the Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and the Second, Third and Fourth with the anthology based on the folk poems gathered under the collective title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn). Therefore these works were linked both psychologically and spiritually; and in fact the song-finale of the Fourth Symphony, the Wunderhorn song Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), was originally conceived as the seventh and final movement of the huge Third Symphony. Even though Mahler rejected this initial plan, fragments of the song were quoted in the fifth movement of the Third: 'What the Angels tell me'.

It is the finale, the 'Child's view of Heaven', which must be regarded as the creative starting point for the Fourth Symphony, not only psychologically but also structurally, since its material pervades the remainder of the work. Accordingly, by Mahler's standards the orchestra is relatively modest. There are only four or five horns (in the Third there were eight), trombones and tuba are omitted altogether; and aside from four flutes, two of whom double piccolos, there are triple woodwinds, along with harp, strings, and a large and varied percussion section. 

The nature of the orchestration goes beyond the composer's natural preference for chamber textures. For here he intended a lightness of tone in keeping with the music’s pastoral vision, which relates to the naivety of the poem of the finale. The 'Child's view of Heaven' was an important image to Mahler, both since it reflected a new approach to the ‘essential question’, and since it was so close to his own experience, as the second of fourteen children, of whom the majority died in infancy or childhood. 

Since the song-finale is so important to the symphony, so too is the nature of the performance it receives from the soprano. Mojca Erdmann sings beautifully, conveying the charm and naivety that lies at the heart of this Wunderhorn song. After all, where else in the musical world would you encounter beans, asparagus and eleven thousand virgins? This is a competitive field when it comes to recordings, finding room for the somewhat matronly Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (with Klemperer, EMI Classics 7243 5 67035 2) and the bold though unauthentic choice of the boy soprano Helmut Wittek of the Tolz Boys’ Choir (with Bernstein, DG 00289 477 5179). See the MusicWeb comprehensive survey of recordings of the symphony by Tony Duggan. 

Jonathan Nott’s performance of the Fourth Symphony with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra makes a strong impression in the context of what is a distinguished and impressive recorded legacy. The Tudor SACD recording does full justice to Mahler’s meticulous and colourful orchestration. Nowhere is the concept of writing for ‘a series of chamber orchestras’ more apparent than in this symphony, and the recorded sound brings the performance to life with admirable clarity, depth and balance. The Bamberg players show themselves as members of an ensemble of international calibre. 

The first movement is clear and sprightly, though not rushed, while the second has the orchestral leader’s devilish violin, tuned up a tone in line with Mahler’s instructions, ideally placed: prominent but not over-lit. The rhythmic subtleties of this movement are expertly handled. 

The slow movement, as usual in a great symphony, is the heart of the work. There is a true pianissimo when required, allowing for a full dynamic range and a shattering climax towards the end of the movement when Mahler arrives at ‘the opening of the gates of Heaven’. This in turn winds down to the song finale.

Few symphonies are more fully represented in the catalogue than Mahler’s Fourth. This new recording can hold a noble place among them, and with such excellent recorded sound, it moves towards the top of the list of recommendations. 

Terry Barfoot


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