Mahler, a late romantic composer embraces the ideals of the romantic era fully in this symphony. He enjoyed making grandiose and long compositions, having a large orchestra and embracing the idea of programmatic music. Many listeners of classical music can point to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique as being an example of programmatic music, with a whole story associated with the symphony; but many composers in the late romantic era used writings and other ideas to form pictures and stories for the listener. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony uses the poem “Das himmlische Leben” or “The Celestial Life” as an inspiration and image for the symphony, each movement corresponding to a stanza of the poem.
Unlike, for example Symphonie Fantastique, in this Symphony the connection to the poem was less exact and more a general idea of joyful and celebratory celestial life. One example where the poem did not connect to the music was in the second stanza, Saint John’s lamb is being lead to the butcher and “Saint Luke slaughters an oxen without giving it a thought.” Though there was a minor selection near the end of the movement, I did not see the translation from the poem to the second movement of the symphony. I also thought that it was interesting that the second movement was a scherzo and the third movement was slow, an interesting change from the classic symphonic structure.
Without the booklet in the front of the CD and the poem to read alongside the symphony, I would have appreciated Mahler’s work differently. There is a brilliant orchestration here, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra does a marvelous job playing a symphony meant for an orchestra twice their size. The brass sound was incredible, and Mahler should not be preformed without a superb brass section, which the Boston Symphony Orchestra has. The solo singer in the fourth movement, Kiri Te Kanawa, did a good job expressing the gaiety in the last stanza of the poem. The quality of the recording was excellent and I could find nothing at fault with the performance of the piece.
I think that this recording and many Mahler symphonies are best to not be contained to small computer speakers. I would rather listen to Mahler in concert with a larger orchestra and an energetic conductor (as Mahler was himself). It would be a better environment to take in the grandiose of his fourth symphony in a concert hall even if is lengthy as the total playing time is just under an hour. Overall, I enjoyed the performance Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 by the Boston Symphony orchestra, but as a composition, it is not in my top favorite romantic symphonies.