The Treasure Hunt: MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 4

©1983 Mark B. Anstendig

Mahier's Fourth Symphony is probably the finest, most subtle satire ever conceived. It satirizes the concept of heaven itself, but in such a way that one can easily think Mahler is being serious.

The poem of the last movement, supposed to be a child's idea of heaven, is actually a subtle, delicate caricature of the most typical ideas of what heaven is like. All the pleasures described are superficial in relation to the most meaningful pleasures on earth and would eventually be utterly boring. Anyone familiar with the outermost possibilities of music-making on earth, for example, would not want to be permanently stuck with Saint Cecilia and her relatives making the music. The joke is subtly and delicately given away at the very end: as the singer sings that "the angels voices so enliven the senses that everything wakes up for joy", the music gently dies out and the singer sings a line that could be a baby becoming bored and falling asleep.

Finding a recording of this symphony poses a problem. One really has to hear three of them to understand this work. The Szell recording on Columbia takes the ironic approach and plays the piece like a fine, Viennese joke. The expression has to be experienced to be believed, but it is just what one would expect when aristocratic Europeans snicker over their own private jokes. In the last movement, Judith Blegen manages the most subtly controlled ironic expression I've ever heard (definitely the idea of Szell, who was known for such subtle, refined, elegant nastiness). This performance is very possibly just the way Mahler intended the work and should be studied assiduously, because these expressive nuances are not easy to hear. The listener has to be in a very special, receptive, quiet state of mind and body.

For an ideal performance, one must listen to two different recordings: The Klemperer recording on Angel for the first two movements and the Abravanel recording for the last two movements.

Szell plays the whole symphony ironically, using impersonal jingling of the bells at the beginning of the first movement to establish the boring quality of heaven. But Klemperer plays this movement as a playful child's romp with a marvelous "Peck's bad boy" climax in the middle that never loses its childlike quality. Klemperer also plays the last two movements straight, but does not achieve the same magical suspension of time that Abravanel achieves in the slow movement. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who would have done it perfectly, does not take the ironic approach and cannot match the ingenuous purity of Netania Davrath.

I used to listen so often to the last two movements of the Abravanel-Davrath performance that my copy has to be worn out. There is nothing more pleasurable that I know of. The very first quiet notes of the slow movement already transfigure the listener. Everything flows naturally and exquisitely through the myriad expressive contrasts, the outbreak near the end has real expression that is tinged with a touch of sad regret as opposed to the can-you-top-this heroics of many performances, and the ending of the movement truly suspends time. A very special, wonderful sadness pervades the whole movement...that of a detached being, perhaps God Himself, looking on and understanding why things have to be the way they are. Netania Davrath sings the last movement straight, but with a perfect childlike purity and a perfect, seamless legato, even when pianissimo. The joke of the movement still comes through, but bittersweet, with the utmost subtlety and delicacy, as the ending becomes a child falling asleep and the orchestra underlines the unreality of it all.

Any recorded performances with such fine nuance must be equalized or the delicacy of expression will not be heard. These records are all typical in their equalization, although Columbia records tend to need more high frequency cut. Start by reducing the frequency range centering at 2500 to 3150 Hz until the edginess is eliminated. Then reduce the thickness of sound with judicious cuts centering at 640 to 800 Hz and 125 to 160 Hz. Perfectionists will want to touch up the equalization with smaller cuts just below those frequencies (and possibly around 1000 Hz) and with some cut in the higher frequencies above 4000 Hz.

Mahler Symphony No. 4
Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra Seraphim S-60359
George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra CBS MY-37225
Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra Vanguard VCS-10042





The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit research and educational institute that studies the vibrational influences in our environment, particularly those of sight and sound, and how they affect sensory perception. Its papers on sound reproduction, problems of focusing in photography, psychology of hearing and seeing, and erratic vibrational influences that affect our lives are widely distributed throughout the world. All are available free of charge.