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Mahler will always be remembered for his huge orchestral works – and his Symphony No.4 fits perfectly into that mould.
It’s interesting, then, that the symphony also exists in pared down form. At the end of the First World War, the composer Arnold Schoenberg set up the society for Private Musical Performances; an arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No.4 was constructed for the society by the Austrian musician Erwin Stein in the early 1920s, featuring one soprano and only twelve accompanying musicians.
The majority of Mahler’s work on constructing the original symphony took place during 1899 and 1900. There is, however, evidence of a slightly earlier influence: the final movement is an orchestral setting of the song ‘Das Himmlische Leben’, which translates as ‘The heavenly life’. Despite the reference to things eternal, though, the majority of his Symphony No.4 does not focus on making grand gestures or statements about the meaning of life, the idea of conflict, or any other big philosophical concept. instead, it is first and foremost an ebullient, colourful symphony, full of expressive orchestral detail and glorious melody.
Symphony No.4 was premiered in Munich on 25 November 1901, with the composer himself conducting. It was by no means embraced by the public, many of whom were expecting more from Mahler – both in terms of the scale of the sound and the ideological inspirations. But today it is a perfect entry point to the music of this most soulful of composers.
Sarah Fox (soprano); Philharmonia Orchestra; Charles Mackerras (conductor). Signum: SIGCD 219.
Illustration: Mark Millington