Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is a much misunderstood work, often being seen as “light” Mahler. True, it has little of the terror and ferocity of the other symphonies, but it is preoccupied with death, even if from a heavenly point of view. It became the encasing for a jewel precious to Mahler, the song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The heavenly life”), which was held back from inclusion in the song cycle “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), and was later planned as a movement for the Third Symphony. Its subtle effect would have been lost in the enormous scope of the Third Symphony, however, and so it became the basis for the Fourth Symphony, a far more appropriate setting. The opening theme has been described as a “celestial sleigh-ride,” with its florid flutes and jingling bells, and indeed, the entire work has a heavenly aura about it. Things are more down to earth in the second movement, inspired by Saint-Saëns’ famous Walpurgisnacht piece “Dance macabre,” and featuring a village fiddle facsimile ideally realized with a prepared instrument tuned up a whole tone. But it is the slow movement that it in many ways the most beautiful section of the work, inspired by a beautifully carved tombstone that suggested eternity to Mahler and the music should fade in and out from nothingness itself. The vocal finale, which will be realized by soprano and Chicago favorite Nicole Cabell, is often interpreted as a frivolous and silly view of heaven from a child’s point of view that ideally becomes something much, much deeper. The CSO is gambling a lot on these performances with German conductor Markus Stenz, who not only is bringing extraordinary depth to Janecek’s “Katya Kabanova” over at Lyric Opera but has just begun a suberb Mahler cycle with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, the same orchestra that premiered the Mahler Fifth back in 1905. The Thursday and Saturday concerts feature the Mahler along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with German soloist Viviane Hagner and the Friday and Sunday performances are part of a “Beyond the Score” presentation exploring the piece in depth with live musical excerpts before a complete performance of the work. (Dennis Polkow)
December 3-6 at Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, (312)395-3000.