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Recordings

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 4 in G major
16 Mar 2006

MAHLER: Symphony no. 4
BERG: Sieben Frühe Lieder

A critical aspect of Mahler’s music is the way the composer often juxtaposed the familiar and the new, and this dichotomy is reflected strongly in his Fourth Symphony.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 4 in G major
Alban Berg: Sieben Frühe Lieder

Renée Fleming, soprano; Claudio Abbado, conductor, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Deutsche Grammophon 477 5574 [CD]

$14.98  Click to buy

While Mahler worked on the Symphony between 1899 and 1900 (and given its premiere in 1901), he drew on an even earlier piece, the orchestral song Das himmlische Leben, for its Finale. Even that introduced something familiar to the Fourth Symphony, since the song had been performed at various times since its composition in 1892. Already in his Third Symphony Mahler quoted music from Das himmlische Leben in Es sungen drei Engel, the fifth and penultimate movement of the Third, and audiences who knew that work would have noticed the connection between the two songs.

By evoking the familiar Mahler introduced a level of expectation into his music which takes the form of various predictable gestures that offset those passages which are truly different. Such dialectic supports the concept of Durchbruch that Adorno found useful in delineating some aspects of Mahler’s style. Thus, the traditional gestures that are part of the opening themes set up such expectations for the beginning of the first movement, which he then counters with the new and dramatic ideas that emerge in the development section. By treating the thematic content in such a dialectic manner Mahler manipulated the structure for expressive purposes.

Likewise, he infused the more traditional Scherzo into something unique by allowing the various sections in the work to serve as points of development. Such intentions are expressed in the surviving sketches for the movement, in which he combined both section labels (A, Aa, B Bb, etc.) with notes to himself about varying and combining ideas. While it may be in the purview of the commentator Donald Mitchell to describe the Scherzo as a series of dances (as found in the liner notes that accompany the recording) such a perspective fails to convey the high degree of unity that actually exists in the movement. That aside, by maintaining such a level of thematic unity Mahler, again, played on the juxtaposition of the familiar with the new in the Scherzo.

Even the slow movement may be viewed in this way, since it begins with something quite familiar, the quotation of the opening phrase of the famous quartet from Beethoven’s Fidelio, “Mir ist so wunderbar,” which suggests, in turn, Mahler’s comment on his own conception. The citation of Beethoven’s music offers a familiar beginning to a movement in which Mahler would explore various ideas in what he himself regarded as one of his finer efforts at variations. All the while, some of the ideas introduced in this movement and the others that precede it contain increasingly explicit thematic fragments connected to Das himmlische Leben, such that the Finale seems familiar. Such a response sets off the novelty of his use of a vocal piece as the conclusion of a four-movement symphony.

From this perspective, the expression of familiar music and the manipulation of expectations is critical element in executing this work. Yet in this performance, the mannered approach that Abbado sometimes falls short, when variations in tempo should be more subtle and enhancing the expression of the piece. Technically, it is well played, but the mannerisms regarding tempo are noticeable at times because they call attention to themselves, rather than serve the musical structure. Variations in tempo are effective when subtle, especially in a work by Mahler, in which the composer himself has included such details in the score. At the same time, the full dynamic ranges found in the score and essentially to the expression of the themes is lacking at times. In the first movement some of the passages marked for crescendos are played at the same dynamic level, while the softer passages in the windows sometimes overshadow the strings. This is not to say that the movement is not well played, but those nuances that Abbado can draw out so well are essential to the execution of this movement.

One of the appealing aspects of the Scherzo is the engaging solo violin performed by Guy Braunstein, who makes meets the challenges of the scordatura tuning amiably. The interaction between the soloist and the other strings, is striking, especially when Mahler contrasts that section against the winds and brass in a movement that involves some of his more kaleidoscopic orchestration. In disintegrating the various motives and cells as he develops his ideas, Mahler also juxtaposes various timbres throughout the movement. It is a challenging piece for the ensemble-playing required, and the Berlin Philharmonic demonstrates sensitivity to this aspect of the music.

Yet the enthusiasm that comes from the Scherzo may be seen to impinge on the slow movement, which opens with a somewhat quicker tempo than some conductors use. Abbado eventually settles into the piece but, as in the first movement, his reading is sometimes mannered. In some passages the lines are emerge with a clarity that some conductors do not achieve. At the same time, there are places where the movement loses focus because the timbres do not seem balanced. It is indeed a difficult movement because of the chamber-music sonorities that are essential to its interpretation. Likewise, the dynamics must support the structure of the movement so that tone colors merge with the various lines in the variations. While some of the passages work well, the recording can seem, at times, episodic. Also, the recording volume that helps to clarify some of the quieter sounds at the end of the variations seems to have limited the perceived intensity of the orchestral outburst at the beginning of the coda that almost reaches forward, to the Song-Finale. Abbado does, however, shape well the latter part of the coda, with its foreshadowing within a few measures the timbres and motives that would become essential to the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, is quite impressive as it serves as a segue to Das himmlische Leben.

With the Song-Finale Das himmlische Leben, Renée Fleming is the soloist, and she contributes a somewhat different texture to the movement with a voice that is, perhaps a more dramatic than some associate with the movement. Certainly her accomplishments speak for themselves, and her engaging performances reach large audiences successfully. With Das himmlische Leben Fleming is sometimes idiosyncratic in her interpretation of the piece. At times her enunciation of the text sometimes merges into the rhythmic patterns of the song, which is not in itself undesirable. Yet in the execution of the second strophe is treated by the conductor and soloist in a rather sing-song manner, that is not always done, and it sounds, perhaps, more comical than the composer intended. Such an approach may seem like the imitation of a child, but it if this is undertaken, it is important to recall the composer’s marking at the beginning of the movement to refrain parody. With the third strophe, the interpretation returns to more conventional gestures that do not distract from the text as much as the previous one. At some fleeting moments the tempos seems to be a little quick for the required diction, but the ensemble never escapes the overall tempo. The final strophe, the one in which Mahler sets the text, “Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,” requires an effortless execution. Yet it is here that the some of the darker shadings of Fleming’s voice emerge. At the same time, the periodic slowing of tempo for several measures preempts the morendo effect that is crucial to the ending of the movement.

Those familiar with the discography of Mahler’s works may recall that Abbado had already recorded the Fourth Symphony. The earlier release is with the Vienna Philharmonic (also on Deutsche Grammophon), with Frederica von Stade as the soloist. It is unfair to draw comparisons when the earlier recording is separated from the present one by about twenty-five years. The new release with the Berlin Philharmonic is part of a series of new recordings of Mahler’s symphonies that have been issued in recent years, which include fine performances of the Third and Sixth Symphonies.

Also included on the present recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder in which Fleming’s performance offers some insights into those works. Composed between 1905-8, this set of songs includes Nacht (Carl Hauptmann), Schilflied (Nicholaus Lenau), Die Nachtigall (Theodor Storm), Trangekrönt (Rainer Maria Rilke), Im Zimmer (Johannes Schlaf), Liebesode (Otto Erich Hartleben), and Sommertage (Paul Hohenberg). No cycle, like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder or Das Lied von der Erde, the latter being composed at about the same time, Berg’s set of songs. Berg’s set of songs for voice and orchestra is a modernist contribution to the nineteenth-century traditional of orchestral song. Unlike Mahler’s contributions, though, Berg’s songs do not form a cycle in the traditional sense, since the texts that occur do not comprise a sequence of connected ideas. Rather, the poems that Berg chose reflect a variety of moods and images to which he responded with some intense and powerful music.

In balancing the voice and orchestral Abbado allows the texts to emerge clearly, so that the verses are as prominent as the accompaniment that serves as a commentary on them. Each of the songs has its own charm, but the setting of Hartleben’s Liebesode is particularly noteworthy for its intensive performance on this recording. For all the traditional love songs set to music, this is a surrealist one, with the music that is suited aptly to the passionate text. Other songs are memorable for various reasons, including Traumgekrönt, with its poignant dissonances that underscore the text incisively. The entire set bears hearing as well for the masterful performance of the Berlin Philharmonic that makes the music that was once new sound familiar and natural. Beyond the fine performance of this set of orchestral songs, the inclusion of Berg’s relatively early work with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony demonstrates the various musical explorations that were being undertaken in the first years of the twentieth century, when late-romantic and expressionist tendencies could exist simultaneously, both enriching the culture which produced them.

One part of this recording that seems out of place is the separate track for “applause.” Granted this is a live recording or, rather, a recording taken from live performances, but the inclusion of the “Applause” seems at odds with the nature of music found on the CD. Such a track might be more appropriate as part of a recording of a single concert, but it seems artificial when included with a compilation from several performances. This is, however, a small quibble only, and hardly relevant to some of the larger concerns that are involved with this recording. Despite any reservations about the performances, it is a recording that deserves attention, especially because of the enlightened pairing of Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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