Mahler – Symphony No. 4
Reri Grist, soprano
New York Philharmonic
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Although Gustav Mahler’s symphonies were neither neglected nor unknown before Bernstein’s concerts and recordings (he recorded the entire cycle thrice), he was the one who really made them popular. This performance of the Fourth Symphony, recorded in 1960 with the New York Philharmonic, testifies well this assertion.
Mahler wrote the Symphony No. 4 in G major between 1899 and 1900, although its finale was already composed in 1892 as a Lied. In fact, the symphony – as the previous three – was inspired by a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and is the last of the so-called Wunderhorn-Symphonien. It was originally intended as a six-movement cycle, entitled Humoresque. However, only the first and sixth Humoresque were used in the Fourth Symphony, while another survives as a Lied and three others provided material for the next symphonies. The complex composition of the symphony explains its evolution from a tragic to a serene work, ending with a child’s vision of Heaven. The symphony premiered in Vienna on August 5, 1900.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4: the Performance
The present recording presents a magisterial rendition of the symphony. Avoiding to fall into the trap of making the symphony sound too light in its positive assertions, Bernstein gives prominence to its contemplative, serene mood. Differently from the 1987 recording of the Fifth Symphony, which is over interpreted, in the earlier recording of the Fourth Symphony you appreciate Bernstein’s sense of balance and proportion. Mahler’s idea of serenity reveals itself with naturalness, thanks to the perfect control of every element: the tempi are measured (listen to the third movement, which is exquisitely balanced) and all the parts of the symphony are imbued with unfailing inspiration. On the whole, Bernstein is able to convey an idea of high spirits without excessive levity.
The orchestral colours are sumptuous and the New York Philharmonic plays wonderfully. The sound is always warm and resplendent. The first movement, in particular, is characterized by such variety of orchestral colours to be breathtaking. The smoothness of the strings is admirable and sets the atmosphere of contemplation and joy. The brasses are remarkable for their round, ringing sound. The woodwinds, for their part, achieve a silky blend.
I was not enthusiastic of soprano Reri Grist, who sings in the last movement. Her voice does not seem to be recorded well. Maybe with the purpose to give the impression that she is approaching from above, she is almost covered by the orchestra and her words and notes are barely audible. However, when you finally are able to listen to her, you hear a singer whose voice is shrill and thin and who is not expressive enough to do justice to the text.
This is the only flaw I blame. This recording is overall an inspiring, excellent milestone in the discography of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.