Gustav Mahler’s 4th Symphony, as well as the song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), is based on Arnim and Brentano’s collection of children’s stories of the same name. The fantasy that emanates from this piece of literature finds in Mahler a natural catalyst, who manages, with each musical impulse, articulation, nuance, glissando, harmonic or any other of the myriad of details that inhabit his scores, to transport us to the dreamy and magical world of children’s stories, thus developing a fragile balance between utter fiction and overwhelming reality. With his 4th Symphony, Mahler brings to an end his so-called Wunderhorn period, marked by the reverie and imagination which can be found in such tales.
Burlesque overtones can be heard the first movement of the symphony, reminiscent of its original title, Humoresque, which crowned the score in its original conception, but was eventually discarded by Mahler himself. The music here conforms to a sarcastic mockery of the Viennese aristocracy and all that it represented for the Austro-Bohemian composer.
The second movement transports us to a completely different scenario. Mahler describes it as a “dance of death” inspired by A. Böcklin’s painting, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Violin, and it is very reminiscent of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, composed about a quarter of a century earlier, and whose violin solo also requires scordatura.
Once again seeking contrast with what has been previously heard, the third movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony is presented before us as a song to life charged with great lyricism. The variations develop the main theme and take it down unpredictable paths, concluding with the solemnity, peace, and joy of which Mahler himself speaks: “This movement laughs and weeps at the same time. Its melody is divinely joyful as well as profoundly sad. St. Ursula herself, the most serious of all saints, presides with a great smile on the high sphere. Her smile resembles that of the statues of ancient knights or prelates which we see reclining in churches, with their hands clasped upon their breast, and with the peaceful and gentle expression of men who have earned their access to high beatitude. Solemn, blessed peace, sober out of gentle delight.”
Crowning the symphony, as if we had just arrived at the end of a path after going through four stages: life, death, ascent to heaven, and heavenly life, we find the lied Das himmlische Leben, Heavenly life. Once there, we discover an existence that relishes all the heavenly pleasures. An existence oblivious to the daily sufferings and events that occur on Earth. The gastronomic delights and the scenes featuring the apostles constitute the background for Mahler’s sublime lied. The appearance of the soprano soloist endows the whole work with an intimate and fanciful atmosphere. It is when listening to it in its entirety that we understand how the whole symphony revolves around the fourth movement, originally conceived as the 5th movement of the 3rd symphony, and which is the genesis, as well as the culmination, of Mahler’s great universe.
Rheinlegendchen or Little Rhine Legend, written as a waltz, tells the story of a boy who, before leaving, gives a golden ring to his fiancée, who, angry at his departure, throws it into the Rhine. Das irdische Leben, Earthly Life, is a lied with tragic overtones in which a mother loses her son because she cannot feed him. The instrumentation, very dissonant at times, is reminiscent of a threshing or reaping machine that represents the fatal destiny that awaits the boy. The lied Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht? (Who has thought of this little song?) is a joyful Ländler with a love theme in which the soprano soloist plays a role of dazzling virtuosity.
Mahler’s 4th Symphony and the lieder of Des knaben Wunderhorn are symphonic scores with a hue similar to that which can be found in chamber music. This is due to the fact that Mahler’s orchestration is not too dense. As a result, it depicts accurately the subject matter it deals with, seeking balance in those moments in which the human voice leads the way. Domínguez-Nieto’s conception of the work, recorded here for the first time, exploits, with utmost respect for the composer’s original orchestration, its chamber music overtones to its maximum. In short, Domínguez-Nieto, besides being a great connoisseur of Mahler’s style and oeuvre, has carefully penned this score, allowing us to enjoy the music of the Austro-Bohemian composer in an unusual, different way.