Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

14 Dec 1991

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

Sylvia McNair

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 4 in G major (63 min.)

    Sylvia McNair soprano

Compared to Mahler’s monumental Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, the Fourth Symphony looks almost slender: it draws on the traditional four-movement model, refrains from using choirs (in favour of a soprano solo in the finale), requires a smaller orchestra compared to its sister works, and comes to an end after about 60 minutes. Nonetheless, the symphony is by no means consistently cheerful or even “classical”, although it has often been classified as such in its reception history. The interlocking of motifs in the development of the first movement which comes close to chaos, the solo violin of the second movement which is tuned upwards by a whole tone and therefore sounds distorted, and the unexpected, powerful return of the opening movement theme at the end of the slow movement, which is entitled “Ruhevoll”, speak against this. The Fourth Symphony, first performed in 1901, is perhaps best understood as the composer’s threshold work: initially, it refers to its predecessors, and like these, it draws on Mahler’s own Wunderhorn collection.

As a finale, the composer used his previously composed song Das himmlische Leben. At the same time, he makes reference to the final movements of his previous contributions to the genre: whereas the Second Symphony had proclaimed the “Resurrection” with Klopstock, and the Third (according to the original programme) the transcendental power of love, the Fourth Symphony deals with the hereafter – now, however, in a surprisingly childlike tone (Leonard Bernstein dared the experiment of using a boy soprano to sing the solo).

But the work also looks ahead to Mahler’s later music: in the middle of the first movement, the fanfare motif can be heard which will then sound at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony; and Mahler himself later said that his great farewell work, the Ninth, had greater similarities to the Fourth than to any other of his symphonies. “Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, / Die uns'rer verglichen kann werden” (There is just no music on earth that can compare to ours) as it says in the last verse of the finale. Whether Mahler really wanted to evoke “heavenly music” here, or whether this passage – like Theodor W. Adorno's opinion of the symphony as a whole – has a “hypothetical air” about it, is still fiercely discussed among academics today.

The performance of the work documented here took place in December 1991 as part of the Mahler cycle realised by Bernard Haitink with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The performance venue was the Konzerthaus (then still known as the “Schauspielhaus”) at Gendarmenmarkt. Here, the orchestra found an alternative venue between January 1991 and April 1992, while the main auditorium of the Philharmonie was closed for renovation work. A few years later, the orchestra also played the Fourth under Haitink at the Salzburg Easter Festival and in the conductor’s home town of Amsterdam. The soloist in the finale was the American soprano Sylvia McNair, who sang Bach, Beethoven, Rossini and Mahler under the direction of Claudio Abbado in numerous Philharmoniker concerts.

© 1991 EuroArts Music International, brilliant media, SFB in association with Philips Classics

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