MAHLER: Symphony No. 4, in G
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, cond. with soprano Lisa della Casa.
RCA "Living Stereo" 63533  [M] [ADD] TT: 53:44 

This 1958 recording, first issued centennially on SD in 1960, included a statement by Reiner in which he admitted, "In my long conducting career I have gone through various reactions to [Mahler's] enormous creative output, beginning with outright rejection (largely due to my youthful ignorance), then growing by degrees to respect and puzzled admiration, and ending with conversion to the group of 'True Believers.' This recorded interpretation of the Fourth Symphony should represent proof of my conversion."

In fact Reiner had been conducting Mahler (both led the provincial opera, albeit 30 years apart, in Laibach, Ljubljana today) as far back as Dresden—1914-21— where he became one of Richard Strauss' friends and valued interpreters. In Cincinnati between 1922 and 1931, as in Dresden, he conducted Das Lied von der Erde as well as the Wayfarer Songs, plus Symphony No. 2 and, according to the surviving archives, Symphony No. 7!  But surely only the two Nachtstuck movements (2 and 4), although perhaps the one in between as well, simply because of the program's length. In Pittsburgh he repeated Das Lied and the Seventh (or part of it), and made the first U.S. recording there of the four Wayfarer Songs for American Columbia, with contralto Carol Brice.

In Chicago a year after the Fourth Symphony, he recorded Das Lied von der Erde with contralto Maureen Forrester in her prime, and tenor Richard Lewis just past his. Henri-Louis de la Grange, whose massive Mahler biography has reached Volume 4 (with at least one more to come), declared it several years later as the best Das Lied on discs. It still needs to be remastered with 20- or 24-bit technology, but the uncredited CD transfer in 1986 on RCA Red Seal (5284) shares shelf-space with Klemperer's more massive but comparably distinguished version on EMI. I've never felt the need for a third version (or more), although many have come and gone since the mid-'70s.

I had, however, reservations about this 1958 Fourth when it was newly released on a noisy, floppy, "Dynagroove" SD, obviously mis-tweaked in the transfer from three-track analog tape to master stamper. How seriously manhandled it was we can finally hear in this "Living Stereo" reincarnation—to the extent of illuminating muted details, balances and hall-response. It mirrors the Chicago Symphony's superlative playing at the apogee in its history, and Reiner's affectionate as well as meticulous reading—never sentimental or over-the-top, as just about every Fourth before and after has been at one point or other (except maybe the Mount-Rushmore version of Klemperer). Bruno Walter was more proprietary but vanilla-cream at the center. Mengelberg, by the time of his 1939 broadcast issued years later on CD by Philips, was conducting a colored-crayon parody of his former interpretation (I was shown his copy of the score with instructional colors that had faded, causing him to overmark them with exaggerated boldness). Bernstein always turned my stomach: so much goose-grease topped with whipped-cream. And so forth.

Lisa della Casa was not, in 1958, nor is she now, my idea of an innocent child sampling heavenly delights, apart from moments when her pitch became curiously uncentered: neither sharp nor flat but subtly imprecise. (The ideal singer of this music for me has always been Irmgard Seefried.) On the other hand, Reiner strikes me today as a far more engaged and eloquent exponent than he did four decades ago—when, truth to tell, I was not yet "converted" to Mahler (nor, further truth to tell, am I yet, chapter and verse; I've really heard enough Symphonies 5 and 8 for the rest of this life, or the entire Sixth in one sitting, or banalities that crept into No. 2, und so weiter). Others have made more of the slow movement climax, although finally we hear the weight and splendor of sound that Reiner summoned and Lewis Layton recorded, heretofore adultered by 'prentice hands at unpredictable RCA. But boy-oh-boy does he find an eerie undercurrent in the first movement as well as in the Scherzo, and orchestrally his finale gives the lie to those who reflexively describe Reiner as "cool" or "cold."

This may not be a Fourth for everyone, but it has made me want to listen not just again but several times more. And to re-read Reiner's manifesto, with its funny line about discussions with Strauss apropos of Mahler, "during our interminable Skat-marathons," as well as his candid observations about why the Fourth Symphony, God knows, "is an uneven work."

R.D.(Oct. 2000)