The Wiener Philharmoniker, with Daniel Harding masterful at the helm, selected a program exploring the extremes of melodic tunefulness in the symphonic form. At the far end of the spectrum to one side, Sibelius’ austere Fourth Symphony, a study in spare scoring and bleak mood; and at the other end, Mahler’s Fourth, a work so chock-full of catchy folk melodies it feels almost pop in comparison. Both were performed exquisitely in the Konzerthaus on Friday evening.

The Vienna Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus © Julia Wesely
The Vienna Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus
© Julia Wesely

Sibelius’s Fourth is, by design, anti-melodic. Like his Third Symphony, the Fourth is motivically constructed around a tritone, first introduced by a cello voice — beautifully rendered here —at the outset. The use of the tritone for most of the key themes and some of the harmonic relationships throughout defies the listener to wrap his ears around a tune. The scoring is paper-thin in its economy, lending the orchestra an almost transparent quality. Every movement ends in piano or pianissimo. The distilled scoring and predominantly quiet dynamic make every odd turn of the bow or missed tone apparent, but the Philharmoniker was concentrated by the second movement, and very much up for the challenge.

Sibelius defies symphonic expectations throughout. Expectations of sonata allegro form: expositions, developments or recapitulations are barely even nodded at in passing, and the second movement Scherzo never returns to its opening theme. There is no romantically satisfying emotional denouement, and tonalities are kept unclear or even set in conflict with one another. The Fourth is an overt challenge to symphonic form and more, according to the composer, who described the symphony as standing “as a protest against present-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it.” It is small wonder that it was met with consternation in 1911 at its premiere in Helsinki and that a large part of the audience left between movements during its American premiere two years later. It is revolutionary in its flaunting of norms, and in its detached emotional restraint.

The Vienna Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus © Lukas Beck
The Vienna Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus
© Lukas Beck

Mahler’s innovations and defiance of norms come in very different packaging. His use of tunefulness — particularly his mixing of song and symphonic form — is well-known, and his Fourth Symphony is an absolute explosion of folk-like melodies. Like his first three symphonies, the Fourth is known as one of the Wunderhorn symphonies. It is largely based on his 1892 setting for soprano titled Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) out of Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim’s collections of folk poems, which Mahler reworked to become the final movement of his Fourth Symphony. The text is all about escape from earthly business and chaos, though Mahler’s musical setting hints at darker, more nuanced truths behind the childlike naivety of the poem. It was sung resplendently by Christiane Karg, who combined clarity of diction with exactly the type of ringing buoyancy and full-voiced agility Mahler demands.

Also brilliant, the concertmaster’s work, particularly the eerie solo fiddling within the macabre Scherzo personifying “Freund Hein”, where his instrument is tuned a full tone higher than normal, changing its color to something very “other”. The third movement is, for my money, one of the most beautiful slow movements that exists in the symphonic literature. When played well , which it was (bravo, solo oboe!), it evokes an otherworldly stillness so full of peace and beauty that it is nearly painful. The brass deserve extra applause as well, particularly for their strong showing out of the gate in the first movement, where folksy snippets and tunes grow and build masterfully into quintessentially Mahleresque swells and explosions of sounds, clashes and colors. After Harding released the orchestra’s last chord there was a long moment of stillness, followed by thunderous applause.