Symphony No. 4 (Ed. Erwin Stein)
Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 4 (Ed. Erwin Stein)

Christian Tetzlaff

Label: CAvi
Format: CD
Barcode: 4260085533343
Catalog number: AVI 8553334
Releasedate: 14-08-15
   A version for chamber music by Arnold Schönberg’s pupil Erwin Stein (1921)
  • A high class cast together with the singer Christiane Oelze performed it at the SPANNUNGEN Festival live 2014
  • 13 players are creating a very sensible, transparent and musical sound of Mahler’s fourth symphony
  • “You know it all, but the sound is different”
This release is Erwin Stein's chamber arrangement of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. In 1921, Arnold Schoenberg organized a series of private concerts, performed by small ensembles. Schoenberg and Stein combined their ingenuity and created 'sophisticated versions' of important orchestral works. These arrangements were usually for a few woodwinds, a string quintet, percussion and piano. Stein also added a harmonium, which was quite rare at the time but the organ adds a unique timbre to this arrangement.
Symphony No. 4 for soprano, solo violin and orchestra (1899/1901),
arranged for chamber ensemble by Erwin Stein (1921)
In this 4th Symphony with lean dimensions, leisurely tempos in all four movements, an orchestra whetted
down to Brahmsian size, a clear formal progression and an apparently naïve final song evoking the
“Heavenly Life”, it is as if Mahler was taking a breather after two massive and unwieldy symphonies in
order to lean back comfortably and distance himself from those nightmarish visions of the afterlife. In no
previous symphony had he been so close to the Knaben Wunderhorn folk poetry he so much admired. But
here, as elsewhere, there are cracks in the idyllic façade. Although more subtly introduced, they are just
as prominent – particularly in the Scherzo, where the solo violin adopts the mask of Freund Hein, the
skeleton, striking up a danse macabre with bizarre, distorted harmonies. This, in turn, bathes the rustic,
down-to-earth trio section in shimmering, chiaroscuro half-tones. On the other hand, the slow movement’s
ethereal cantilenas are not far removed from those of Mahler’s 3rd and 9th Symphonies. And although the
work’s final apogee seems to open the curtains to an unclouded land of milk and honey, the drastic
context still makes it sound somewhat unreal: more vision than reality. Even in all its hyped-up naiveté, the
choral hymn evoking the “heavenly life” does not refrain from baring its teeth. This last movement, written
eight years earlier, sets in with several bars in minor mode before Mahler finally brightens up the landscape
to major with the unnerving jingling of sleigh bells. In subsequent references to a slaughtered lamb and
the massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem, the composer presents a disturbing view of paradise:
Heaven is a slaughterhouse where pleasure is only obtained at the expense of innocent creatures.
Mahler remains true to his own aesthetics, certain exceptional traits notwithstanding. Despite its accessible,
manageable length, the 4th Symphony met up with fierce hostility. In fact, during first rehearsals, the
Vienna Philharmonic musicians opposed it so stubbornly that Mahler had to move the première to Munich
And although the audience in the Bavarian capital had already tolerated two “bombastic boa constrictors”
– Mahler’s 2nd and 3rd Symphonies – they were still not very enthusiastic about the 4th and
greeted the première performance on 25 November 1901 with hisses and angry whistling.
Mahler was all the more thrilled, then, when conductor Julius Buths placed the 4th Symphony on the
programme in Düsseldorf in November 1903. “So you’re going to take a chance with the 4th? With my
persecuted stepchild, which has so far known so little joy in the world? I’m immensely pleased that an
audience you have educated yourself is willing to go along with you in feeling and understanding.” In the
same letter, Mahler hinted at possible reasons for such hostile reactions to his work (indeed, today we find
them hard to conceive). “My experience, in general, has been that humor of this sort – something quite
different than wit or mere cheerfulness – is not recognized as such, not even by the best.” This would not
have applied to first-rank colleagues such as Felix von Weingartner, who braved opposition and performed
the 4th Symphony on repeated occasions in Munich. Neither was it true of Richard Strauss, who had no
problem with “humor of this kind”. Strauss’s own tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks featured the
same sort of irony, in more ways than one. And Mahler conducted no other work by Strauss as often as Till.
Mahler had originally planned to write a “Humoreske”, which eventually expanded to become a fourmovement
symphony. It was Schumann who had introduced the term Humoreske into music, but it
stemmed from German Romantic author Jean Paul, whom Schumann and Mahler highly revered.
Mahler had good reasons to quote the title of one of Jean Paul’s greatest novels by calling his 1st
Symphony Der Titan.
In his Introduction to Aesthetics, Jean Paul defined humor as “the inverted sublime, which does not
annihilate the concrete occurrence as such, but crushes that which is finite by contrasting it with the
absolute idea”. That is exactly what is reflected in the allusions to death in the Scherzo, and even to a
greater extent in the grotesquely distorted depiction of heavenly delights in the last movement, where
Mahler explicitly instructs the soprano to interpret her part “with childishly cheerful expression and not
an inkling of parody”. Although the innocence is broken by the depiction of the angels’ bloodthirsty
pleasures, it should not be trivialized with parody gimmicks that make it sound like a joke. In this finale,
Mahler’s intention is to underscore the previous movements’ meaning (particularly that of the Scherzo)
while cancelling out the apparently idyllic effect of the Adagio: he thus makes the most of every opportunity
to point out motivic connections between all four movements. The most obvious instance can be seen in
the reappearing sleigh bells. Incidentally, they do not stem from Leopold Mozart’s Sleigh Ride (as some
of Mahler’s contemporaries surmised), but are akin to bells worn by jesters such as Till Eulenspiegel.
Although the orchestral forces prescribed by Mahler in the 4th Symphony were already quite manageable
in terms of size, we have Arnold Schoenberg to thank for Erwin Stein’s 1921 arrangement of the same work:
Stein’s chamber music reduction saw the light of day in the “Society for Private Musical Performances”,
a concert series organized by Schoenberg. Apart from the usual scoring for such settings (two violins, viola,
double bass, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet and piano), Stein also foresaw the use of several percussion
instruments, and included a further one that was quite fashionable in the early 20th century: the concert
reed organ (harmonium).
© Pedro Obiera