MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G Major – Sofia Fomina, soprano/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vladimir Jurowski – LPO – 0113, 59:07 (7/19/19) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Professor Philip Friedheim, my former instructor at SUNY, Binghamton in musical composition and analysis, used to quip that Gustav Mahler’s 1899 Symphony No. 4 in G Major “had been written in reverse.” Mahler had already employed motifs that appear in the first movement in two movements of his even-more pantheistic Third Symphony, although here in his G Major Symphony Mahler invokes a vocal finale – composed prior to the rest of the work- that paradoxically juxtaposes life and death in a virtual, amoral universe. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski (rec. live 12 October 2016) extends his complete Mahler cycle with this lyrically tender and occasionally morbid invocation of Nature’s paradoxes.
Mahler declared that his Fourth Symphony would address “a forest with all its mysteries and horrors. . .which weaves itself into my work.” The scoring achieves a transparent ingenuousness, a jogging, sleigh-bells tune expands into a Mozartean serenade that asks cellos, oboe and bassoon to invoke pastoral, childlike gestures. The violin and horns, trumpets, bells, and high winds generate new energies, fanfares and possible train whistles through a landscape both idyllic and threatening. The fateful fanfare issued by gong, brass, and bass drum will inform the more sinister Funeral March in the Fifth Symphony. Jurowski and his responsive LPO maintain a scrupulous restraint on the proceedings, and even the passing dissonances yearn to resolve themselves in the luxury of warm, singing melody.
The violin (leader Pieter Schoeman) dominates the Scherzo, to be played “at a leisurely pace, without haste,” wherein the violin part has been tuned up, scordatura, to invoke Medieval illustrations of Death’s fiddle. The presence of two trio sections would hearken back to Robert Schumann’s example. The visual image, as such, relies on Freund Hain, the allegorical pied-piper from German folklore who makes death another of life’s adventures. The music rises through its grotesqueries to a glorious sense – from harp and portamento strings – of melody and mysticism. The final measures become malevolent and impish, a taste of witches’ brew.
Mahler claimed that his sumptuous theme for the Ruhevoll (Restful) third movement found inspiration in a tombstone’s carved image of departed soul’s reclining with folded arms in blissful sleep. The huge set of variations (much in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth) Mahler creates found cinematic (and erotic) expression in the 1968 La Prisonniere of director Henri-Georges Clouzot. The grandiose development culminates in a climactic E Major that will serve as the “progressive” key of the last movement. The slow, lengthy transition from complexity to “heavenly” simplicity now finds its culmination in the poem Das himmlische Leben that Mahler utilized for the finale of his Symphony No. 3.
The Fourth Symphony concludes Mahler’s cycle of Wunderhorn works, those based on the large collection of German folk ballads compiled by Arnim and Brentano and first employed by Carl Maria von Weber for his initiation into Romanticism. A bucolic series of chords from the orchestra winds and harp and then strings invites the soprano solo to sing of a heavenly feast – where angels bake bread, Saint Luke slays oxen, and even Herod, the slayer of Innocents, appears – which juxtaposes contradictory impulses of eternal life and cruel death, all set to Technicolor E Major. “No music on earth can be compared to ours.” Soprano Fomina communicates seductively the innocently transparent bliss even in slaughter, though my personal favorite in this music lies with Teresa Stich-Randall, either in her commercial record with Otterloo or in concert with Klemperer. The wondrous feast concludes by invoking Saint Cecilia, muse of music, herself, to accompany the angelic consort. The fading sonority leaves only the harp to remind us of the paradoxical bliss awaiting us, the gossamer sonics courtesy of Producer Andrew Walton.