Orchestral category finalist
2009 Classic FM Gramophone Awards
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer - conductor
Miah Persson - soprano
"There is a unique purity and transparency in Mahler's 4th Symphony. The enchanting sleigh bells take us to his inner child, to his dreams of angels, fairy tales, angst and pure, divine love. This child-like symphony needed a different orchestra: no dark tuba, no heavy trombones, no large arsenal of massive brass. A chamber orchestra in fact, where the clarinets act as mock trumpets, the solo violin tunes his strings sharper in order to scare us and the lightness of the whole orchestra lifts us up to his lovely, childish vision of paradise." Iván Fischer
Mahler, Symphony no. 4
It has been said that every note written by Gustav Mahler was autobiographical, whether it was in a gentle symphony like the Fourth, or the tragic Sixth. But there is no doubt that his most autobiographical wiriting can be found in his songs. The story behind his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a wayfarer] is his own narration of unrequited love. The music, at first glance, is simple, lyrical, and touching. The protagonist, disappointed in love, goes a-wandering in the best Romantic tradition, mourns, laments, contemplates suicide, but ultimately finds peace and resignation. Equally compelling are Mahler's Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the death of children], in which a father loses his children, dealing with his bitter confrontation with death in highly personal verses and music. In his songs Mahler looked back to his own youth; as a child, he lived through the death of five of his twelve little brothers and sisters.
Many years after his death, people who had been present at concerts conducted by Mahler had more vivid memories of his performances of an opera by Mozart of Wagner than of his own music. Mahler was revered as a conductor, but his works were relatively little-known. Much has changed for Mahler in the intervening years, a scant century after his death. His popularity is greater than ever, many biographies have been devoted to him, and his music is known all over the world. This is due above all to a handful of European conductors who knew Mahler personally and acted as advocates for his music: Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, and Jascha Horenstein.
Mahler is considered to represent the end of one era, and the beginning of the next. His roots were in the classical-romantic tradition of Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, but he broke with that tradition in many different ways. Following Beethoven's example, he made use in his symphonies of poetic texts sung by choruses and soloists, as he does here. He abandoned the traditional symphonic model of four movements, which had been so faithfully conserved by Bruckner. And in the tradition set by Wagner, he expanded the size of his orchestra enormously, most obviously in his Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand". At the same time, however, he sometimes thinned the ensemble out to a chamber music setting, for example in the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony. Mahler's symphonies are the climax of a tradition stretching from Haydn to Brahms, but at the same time they point the way forward. In particular they point to one of Mahler's own disciples: Arnold Schönberg. Mahler's compositions were not always well received at their first performances; "My time will come", he would say, and with good reason.
The greatest of Mahler's symphonies frequently draw on folk traditions of dances and songs for their inspiration. In his Fourth Symphony, for example, he uses a kind of folk poem as the foundation for a beautiful soprano solo. Mahler took this poem from an anthology called Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The youth's magic horn], a volume of so-called folk poetry assembled in 1806 by the poets Arnim and Brentano. Mahler was fascinated by the collection from the moment he began reading it in1887. He initially used nine poems for songs with piano accompaniment; later he composed twelve additional songs, which became the so-called Gesänge aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn [Songs from the youth's magic horn]. For the soprano solo in the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, Mahler chose the poem Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden [We revel in the joys of heaven]. The poem describes the cozy fellowshipof saints and angels in heaven, as seen through the eyes of a child. Looking backwards from the poem, we can better understand the entire symphony, which preceded it. The poem's atmosphere also explains the light, transparent, small-scaled setting for this composition, a kind of chamber music. The Fourth is the most accessible of Mahler's symphonies. The first movement begins with tinkling sleighbells, introducing two melodies of Schubertian character. Gradually a braided sequence of almost limitless themes comes into being, but their melodic density never clouds the delicate, transparent tone of the movement.
The second movement was originally entitled Freund Hein spielt auf [Old Nick plays on his violin] by the composer. It is a gently spooky scherzo, free of any real suspense or deathly atmosphere. In the sinister shrill sounds of a solo violin tuned sharp, we can see the terrifying fiddler from Cranach's "Dance of death". With his fiddling and dancing, Death tries to lure souls into his dark kingdom, but it is all in vain. This is followed by the Adagio, one of Mahler's most beautiful movements, no less beautiful than the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony. It is a glorious, serene melody for the cello, with variations, interrupted twice, the first time by a lively dance, and later by an explosion of passion and disintegration, ultimately returning to peace. It is the ideal prelude for the sung Finale. Mahler directs the last movement to be played "With childlike, cheerful expression, without parody". The Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati pithily described this Finale as "Sunday morning in Heaven." Clemens Romijn