“Scarcely a theme, let alone a whole movement, can be taken at face value. A masterpiece like the Fourth Symphony has a hypothetical air about it from the first note to the last.” Thus spoke Adorno in his 1960 address to the Mahler Centenary Exhibition in Vienna. Why is it surprising that Mahler’s music has become far more popular today than it was in Adorno’s time, when it languished in relative obscurity with a reputation for being eccentric and aesthetically naïve? Certainly we must not allow our appreciation for, and engagement with, the complex nature of Mahler’s work to become complacent even if he has emerged as perhaps the grandest icon of the most staple orchestral fare. 

In their recent performance of the Fourth Symphony, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Emeritus Donald Runnicles excavated a wide expressive range that shed some light on the complex meanings of Mahler’s oeuvre. The Fourth Symphony is, along with the First, fairly short and manageable and therefore frequently heard live. But it is uniquely imbued with a sense of abstract nostalgic loss, made programmatic in the final movement which includes an adaptation of the composer’s earlier song “Das himmlische Leben” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a near-strophic setting of words about a heavenly childlike paradise underpinned by the persistent presence of death.

Adorno intriguingly connects the youthful melancholy of the Fourth Symphony with the Viennese legacy of Mozart, and the first half of this concert aptly presented three minor works of Mozart’s from the 1770s. The Symphony in D major, K196/K121 is outstandingly lightweight, even for a 16-year-old, and its curtailed form, especially the first movement, only just about allowed the orchestra to shine. It might have benefited from a smaller, more incisive string section, but Runnicles instead brought out a smooth silkiness from the orchestra which was attractive in its own way. There were also a couple of works which displayed contrasting sides of soprano Carolyn Sampson’s impressive vocal abilities:  the rather sober restraint of Exsultate, Jubilate and the witty buffa extravagance of “Voi avete un cor fedele”, an insertion aria written in 1775 for Baldassare Galuppi’s opera Le nozze. It was a pleasant, if strangely ineffectual, first half.

Nevertheless, the BBCSSO could really only show off their prowess in the Mahler. Runnicles has a particular style of conducting which probably relates to his expertise and great renown in Wagner. After the impulse of his beat, he sculpts the swelling orchestral textures that ensue through long structural passages under the span of his widely stretched arms. He lets the music expand and contract in accordance with a sophisticated sense of pacing. All of this is necessary in Wagner, where the scale and the continuity of line is huge. In Mahler, the scale can be similarly huge but he mostly eschews the teleological direction of Wagner in favour of expanses of time filled with all kinds of musical entities: famously, “the symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.”

Mahler’s proto-modernism, then, lies in his notion of the ‘musical work’. His gamut of heterogeneous, often stylistically unoriginal material, which circles around and connects in a fundamentally empty aesthetic space, demands a form of open listening akin to absorption in an epic novel. In a sense it even prefigures the music of John Cage and much of the post-war avant-garde. The bittersweet quality of the Fourth Symphony results from Mahler’s deploying the sweetest, most innocent musical materials in an aesthetic context which implicitly accepts their futility. It is a symphony which unexpectedly looks backwards and forwards, as the individual emotional significance of music was becoming more and more detached from the secure meanings of culture. It is all too easy to link Mahler’s Fourth with the year of its composition, 1900, the cusp of modernity’s most traumatic century. And yet, despite Debussy’s indictments, Mahler was no reactionary: the aesthetic space of modernism may not be comforting, but he shows how we can act creatively within it to postulate new musical possibilities. 

While the various difficulties of Mahler’s score occasioned a few lapses of concentration in the orchestra, mostly in and around the tempo changes, the BBCSSO delivered a powerful and convincing account of music that almost mistrusts its own ability to convince. Carolyn Sampson’s reappearance for the final movement was richly nuanced and deeply affecting. Unlike so many symphonies, Mahler’s Fourth winds down gradually through the last two movements and ends gently in a whisper. This was an assured performance of deceptively challenging music and it was something to relish.