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Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 4: A Historical Perspective
by Roger S. Gordon


Whenever classical music lovers get together, the odds are fairly high that someone is going to say something like, "Conductor X is the greatest. Did you hear his performance of ABC?" Someone else will reply, "Yes, it was a nice performance, but Conductor Y's performed it soooo much better with the QRS Orchestra in 1953," which brings the retort, "Y sucks!! He couldn't conduct his way out of a paper bag!" This intellectual discussion will continue until: (1) dawn, (2) the spouses separate the combatants, or (3) the beer runs out.

One of the most common of these arguments—pardon, discussions—revolves around which conductor's Mahler performances are the most authentic. Mahler was one of the greatest conductors of his generation. Hearing Mahler conduct Mahler would be a tremendous treat for any Mahler lover, but unfortunately he died in 1911, before recordings of his performances were possible. In fact, the first American recording of a complete Mahler symphony did not occur until 1935!1 If no recordings of Mahler conducting Mahler exist, how do we know what is authentic and what is not?

Mahler devotees usually put forth three candidates as the ones most likely to conduct Mahler's music as he intended. These candidates are Bruno Walter (1876-1962), Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), and Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951). All three men knew Mahler, and all three championed his music. Walter worked as Mahler's assistant during two separate periods, in Hamburg and in Vienna. During quiet moments, they discussed Mahler's works as he played portions of them on the piano. Walter also gave the world premiers of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (1911) and his Ninth Symphony (1912)—his last two works, and ones he never heard performed. Mahler also befriended Klemperer, and two of Klemperer's early conducting posts were obtained through Mahler's efforts. Mengelberg was conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra for fifty years (1895-1945), and during that time held several festivals at which all of Mahler's works were performed. He also invited Mahler to Amsterdam to conduct his works, and annotated his personal copies of the scores, noting how Mahler interpreted them. Mengelberg conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in some of Mahler's works in 1917. These performances received rave reviews, and Alma Mahler, Mahler's widow, gave him some of Mahler's personal scores in gratitude for his marvelous performances. Mengelberg's legendary performances of Das Lied von der Erde caused appeals to be made to the Dutch government to provide funds to make a recording of the piece. Sadly, this never happened.

And the winner is…

Unfortunately, very few recordings exist of Walter, Klemperer, or Mengelberg conducting Mahler. Klemperer did not become a world-famous conductor until the 1950s, so the existing recordings are from late in his career. Mengelberg, who stopped conducting in 1945, made quite a few recordings, but very few of Mahler's works. Walter was a world famous conductor by the 1920s, but even his Mahler recordings are not as numerous as one might expect.

The Mahler symphony for which the most recordings exist is the Fourth, including seven recordings by Walter—1945 (CBS studio recording), 1950 (live from the Salzburg Festival), 1952 (Amsterdam live), 1953 (New York live), 1955 (Paris live), 1955 (Vienna live), and 1960 (Vienna live). There are two recordings by Klemperer—1956 (Munich studio) and 1962 (EMI studio)—and one by Mengelberg from 1939 (Amsterdam live). From this small sample, what conclusions, if any, can be drawn? Let's listen to these historical recordings. In order to preserve what's left of my sanity, only the three most critically acclaimed of the Walter recordings will be included. In addition, two modern recordings of the Fourth will be included for comparison purposes. The recordings, in chronological order, are:


Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jo Vincent soloist, radio broadcast from 11/9/39 (Grammofono 2000 AB 78 844)


New York Philharmonic, Desi Halban soloist, studio recording, 5/10/45 (Sony SMK 64450)

Vienna Philharmonic, Irmgard Seefried soloist, live concert 1950 (Urania 22.158)

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf soloist, live recording 6/19/52 (Music & Arts 1090)


Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Elisabeth Lindermeier soloist, studio recording 10/19/56 (Golden Melodram GM 4.0057)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf soloist, studio recording 1962 (EMI SAX 2441 [LP]/567035 [CD])

George Szell

Cleveland Orchestra, Judith Raskin soloist, studio recording10/1-2/65 (Sony SBK 46535)

Lorin Maazel

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Kathleen Battle soloist, studio recording 1983 (CBS MDK 44908)

Mahler's Fourth is considered by many to be the most accessible of his nine symphonies. It is the shortest. It is also more lyrical, more sedate, and has less pathos than the others, yet what is one to make of the song from Das Knaben Wunderhorn that he used as the fourth and final movement? The movement was originally written in 1892 as a song with orchestral accompaniment. Mahler initially envisioned the song as the seventh movement of his Third Symphony, but the symphony would have been over two hours long, so the movement was cut and the song ended up in the Fourth Symphony, which Mahler completed in 1900 and revised in 1902. The first three movements of the Fourth Symphony can be considered a link back to the Third Symphony, for there is a musical connection between them, but the three movements are also the lead-in to Das Knaben Wunderhorn, used by Mahler in both his Second and Third symphonies. Thus, the Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies are all intertwined. If you really want to understand Mahler's Fourth Symphony, you need to listen to the Second and Third as well.

Listening to the 1939 Mengelberg performance is enlightening. Mengelberg acquired his conducting skills in the late 1800s, and conducting has changed considerably since then. Rubato (the changing of tempos within a strict tempo) and portamento (the gliding of the strings from one note to the next) were used much more extensively in Mahler's time than they are now. These stylistic differences are very noticeable. Does this make the performance dated? No, just different, and probably closer to the way Mahler would have conducted the work. The performance is the third longest of the eight,2 but it does not seem that way. It is energetic, expressive, and a must-hear for all lovers of the Fourth.

The 1945 Walter is different from the 1939 Mengelberg, but it also has similarities. This is a very fast performance—almost four minutes faster than Walter's 1950 and 1952 performances, and more than ten minutes faster than the 1983 Maazel—yet the performance does not seem hurried. It is a very gentle, relaxing performance. The use of rubato and portamento is still evident, though not as evident as in the Mengelberg. This performance will not seem as different to the modern ear as Mengelberg's.

Walter's 1950 Salzburg Festival performance is slower paced than the 1945 version. Walter and the soloist, Irmgard Seefried, a renowned lieder singer, seemed to work much better together than did Walter and Desi Halban in the 1945 performance. Walter again alters tempo by stretching certain notes and shortening others. By doing so, he brings tremendous emotional expression to the score. This music lives and breathes.

The Concertgebouw Orchestra had played Mahler's Fourth many times under Mengelberg, so playing it under Walter in 1952 must have seemed like old times. This is a masterful performance, more powerful and expressive than the 1945 and a little more forceful than the 1950. Some people prefer Schwartzkopf over Seefried, and Schwartzkopf is the better opera singer, but the fourth movement is not opera. It is a lied, a child's song expressing how he is going to fill his belly with food when he gets to heaven. I prefer Seefried's lieder version to Schwartzkopf's operatic one.

Klemperer's 1956 performance is soft and quiet. It is lyrical, without sadness and sorrow, only beauty. It is a very different performance from any of the others. It may not be authentic Mahler, but it is definitely worth listening to at least once. Klemperer's 1962 performance is as different from his 1956 performance as night is from day. This performance has remained in the catalog for forty-one years. It is strong and forceful, yet incredibly beautiful. Rubato and portamento are used, but only lightly. Schwartzkopf sings beautifully, but is this opera or lieder?

Listen to Szell's recording and you will hear technical perfection. All the inner details are there, and with the score on your lap you can follow every note, yet this is not a cold, dry performance. Far from it. It is the most powerful and forceful of these recordings. In many ways, this performance of the Fourth brings it closer to the feeling of the Second and Third than to the seven other performances we are considering. This is a modern performance, with no stylistic carryovers from the early 1900s.

Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra recorded a Mahler symphony cycle in the 1980s, and their recording of the Fourth is the pick of the litter. The VPO does Mahler exceptionally well—just listen to the recordings Walter made of the Fourth with the VPO in 1950 and 1960. Compared to the Szell, Maazel's performance is warmer, more more Viennese, yet I find the Szell more exciting. Your mileage may vary.

In conclusion, if you want a historic performance played as Mahler himself was likely to have played it, the 1939 Mengelberg is the one. You owe it to yourself to hear Mengelberg's performance. It is both educational and very enjoyable. If you can't tolerate the historic style of Mengelberg, Walter is the next best choice. I prefer the 1950, but you could make strong arguments for the 1945, the 1952, or the even the overly sentimental 1960 farewell concert with the VPO. All Mahler fans need to listen to the Klemperer 1962. It is probably not historically accurate, but it is a great performance. The Szell and Maazel performances are not historically accurate, but they were never meant to be. They are great performances of a major symphonic work. I prefer the Szell, but can see how others would prefer the Maazel. I am glad to have both. Since the Szell sells for $7.98 and the Maazel for $9.98, you can afford to have both in your collection. 

1Eugene Ormandy recorded Mahler's Second Symphony with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on January 6, 1935. This was only the second recording of Mahler's Second Symphony in the world, and the first recording in the United States of a complete Mahler symphony.

2The performance times, by movement, of the recordings listened to are as follows:


1st 2nd 3rd 4th Total

Mengelberg 1939

17:16 8:21 21:25 9:53 56:55

Walter 1945

16:19 8:35 17:34 7:36 50:04

Walter 1950

16:41 8:56 19:42 8:28 53:47

Walter 1952

16:34 8:59 19:46 8:21 53:40

Klemperer 1956

16:40 9:22 19:13 9:10 54:25

Klemperer 1962

17:55 9:55 19:10 8:55 55:55

Szell 1965

17:25 9:14 20:52 10:17 57:48

Maazel 1983

18:03 9:28 22:31 10:41 1:00:43