At 20 he joined Benny Carter to work as a drummer. But Russell had learnt something about arranging from a fellow patient at a TB sanatorium, and one day, at a downtown theatre in Chicago, the band tried over one of his pieces. Subsequently he recalled, "Benny was very happy with it, and on top of that he paid me for it... I was launched on a writing career". Next, he did some arranging for Earl Hines, who was at the El Grotto club in Chicago. And then came Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 recording of "Round About Midnight". This latter had a great effect on him, and he knew he had to be at the centre of things, in New York.
Gillespie was putting a large band together, his second, and several arrangers were offering him material. Not feeling particularly confident, Russell brought out his Carter piece, and the trumpeter liked it as much as the alto saxophonist had. However, illness was again ready to play a crucial role in his life, the very next day putting him into hospital for 16 months. Later he said, "I knew I had to make use of this time to educate myself. From the scraps of advanced harmony I'd learnt, I knew that my answer didn't lie in traditional theory. I'd experimented a bit with polytonality, but on the piano in the hospital library I began a really intensive research into tonality" (1). That continued for 11 months, and towards the end of this time the Lydian mode (characterised by a sharpened fourth, and found in folk music in several parts of the world) began to emerge as a key factor.
On leaving hospital, Russell accepted an invitation to recuperate at Max Roach's Brooklyn apartment, where Gillespie, Lewis, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were frequent guests. There, "Thanks to Max's piano and Mrs Roach's monumental patience, I continued to research for another nine months,” he remembered (1). Then he needed to find out if he could utilise his discoveries in composition. The result was that he conducted Gillespie's band in "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop" at Carnegie Hall in December 1947. In the same month, a record was made and the jazz community at large became aware of George Russell, though not immediately.
Published comment centred on the leader's trumpeting, even although this was set in an unprecedented context, and upon Chano Pozo's chanting and superb conga drumming. But the exultant, harshly incantatory ensemble passages, like those of "Thermopylae", Robert Graettinger's first score for Stan Kenton, recorded that same month, December 1947, for a while defied attempts at a coherent response. Russell's two movements are strikingly different from each other yet obviously related closely, their approach to the jazz orchestra's resources being disconcertingly independent of convention. This is most evident in the music's discontinuity, its juxtaposition of very different textures and types of motion, in its violently unpredictable rhythmic life. It is consistent but accords with laws then unfamiliar, and only years later did we grasp that "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop" was the most original piece ever recorded by a Gillespie big band.
Meanwhile, Russell had been noticed by other perceptive leaders and wrote arrangements for Claude Thornhill, Artie Shaw, and an interesting version of "Caravan" that was recorded by Charlie Ventura. His next ‘major’ score acquired, however, a legendary reputation all of its own. "The Bird In Igor's Yard" was long available only in the form of two acetates, one owned by Gerry Mulligan, the other by the New York disc-jockey Symphony Sid, who broadcast it frequently on his late night radio programme. Recorded by Buddy de Franco's large band in 1949, it was only issued commercially much later and shows that in the 18 months since “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop”, Russell had moved to a considerably more precise use of his discoveries. Essentially an advance on Eddie Sauter's intelligent vehicles for Goodman such as “Clarinet A La King”, with the leader's instrument deeply embedded in the ensemble and room for tenor and piano solos by Al Cohn and Gene di Novi, “The Bird In Igor's Yard” benefits from better performance and recording than the Gillespie piece. The problem for listeners is this music's diversity of gesture, for it presents a sequence of new yet unmistakably connected ideas, often more than one at a time. So tightly packed are these that the piece leaves an impression of size out of proportion to its brief length. The complexities, though, are of a strictly musical order, encouraging the musicians to play with fire and spontaneity.
Diane woke me one morning and said, “You have a record date today.” I hadn’t been playing. I hadn’t been doing anything. I said, “Are you kidding? Who with? And where? And what?” She told me that she and Les Koenig from Contemporary Records had got together. The only way they could do it, they figured, was to set it up and not tell me about it so I’d be forced into it. They knew that no matter how strung out I was I would take care of business if people were depending on me. Even at my worst I was always that way. She told me that Miles Davis was in town, and they had gotten his rhythm section and set it all up with them. They were going to record with me that day: Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, and Red Garland on piano.
I wouldn’t speak to Diane at all. I told her, “Get out of my sight.” I got my horn out of the closet, got the case and put it on the bed and looked at it, and it looked like some stranger. It looked like something from another life. I took the horn out of the case. When you take the saxophone apart there’s the body piece, the neck, and the mouthpiece, and those three pieces are supposed to be wiped and wrapped up separately when they’re put in the case. Evidently, the last time I’d played I’d been loaded and I’d left the mouthpiece on the neck. I had to clean the horn because it was all dirty. I had to oil it and make sure it was operating correctly. On the end of the neck is a cork, and the mouthpiece slips over that. I had to put a little cork grease on it. I grabbed the mouthpiece and pulled. It was stuck at first and then all of a sudden it came off in my hand. The mouthpiece had been on the neck for so long that the cork had stuck inside it, and on the end of the neck was just bare metal. It takes a good repair man four or five hours to put a new cork on. It has to set. It has to dry. It has to be sanded down. I didn’t have time for that. I was going to have to play on a messed up horn.
And I was going to have to play with Miles Davis’s rhythm section. They played every single night, all night. I hadn’t touched my horn in six months. And being a musician is like being a professional basketball player. If you’ve been on the bench for six months you can’t all of a sudden just go into the game and play, you know. It’s almost impossible. And I realized that that’s what I had to do, the impossible. No one else could have done it. At all. Unless it was someone as steeped in the genius role as I was. As I am. Was and am. And will be. And will always be. And have always been. Born, bred, and raised, nothing but a total genius! Ha! Ahahaha!
There was no way to fix the neck so I put the mouthpiece back on it with the cork and fitted it where it was. If I wasn’t in tune, or if it started slipping or pulling loose or leaking, I was dead. I wrapped some tape around it. I took the reed off. It was stuck on the mouthpiece, all rotted and green. I got a new reed, found one I liked, and I blew into the horn for a little while. Then Diane came to the doorway. She was afraid to come in the room. She said, “It’s time for us to go.” I called her a few choice words: “You stinkin’ motherfucker, you! I’d like to kill you, you lousy bitch! You’ll get yours!” Then I went into the bathroom and fixed a huge amount.
I had no idea what I was going to play. Talk about being unprepared! The first albums I’d made, I’d always had something I’d written, a couple of tunes. We drove to Melrose Place, where the recording studio was, and there was Les at the door. He gave me a sheepish grin and said, “Well, how’re you doing?” I said, “Uh.” He said, “It’ll be alright. Everything’ll be alright.”
Les Koenig was someone I’d met in the early fifties. He’s been a movie producer at Paramount, a good producer with a lot of credits (He co-produced “Detective Story,” “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday”). But right after the war they started a big campaign to rid the movie industry of communists; I think it was the McCarthy thing. I guess after Goebbels and Hitler they saw what a strong force propaganda was, and they were trying to clean up, rightly or wrongly, the people that started it. Probably they were thinking right, but like anything else that starts out like that it becomes a monster after a while and a lot of people suffer. So the people in the industry were asked to sign a paper saying that they didn’t believe this or believe that or had never been a communist or had never attended a meeting or would never attend one and all this nonsense. And the people were called before a committee and asked to name communists in the movie industry. Most of them signed the paper and named names. They just said, “Well, fuck it — this is my livelihood.” But there were a few that were such real people, such honest people, honest to themselves, that they would not cooperate. And Les Koenig was one of these. He wasn’t a communist actually, but he refused to go along with it because he felt that the committee infringed upon his rights. And so he was ostracized and kicked out of an industry where he’d become a producer.
After he left the movies he had to find something to do. Les was a person that liked good things. He liked art; he liked good writing; he loved music. And so he started Contemporary Records. Les was the first to record the legendary Ornette Coleman when no other company would touch him. He recorded many young, far-out people and gave them their first opportunities to be heard. And he recorded Sonny Rollins, Shelly Manne, Andre Previn, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, and many more. I had made albums for different companies, but I’d never gotten the right shake on my royalties, things like that. (In fact, all the records I made prior to my association with Les are still being sold in this country or in Europe, in Japan, and I don’t get a penny in royalties from them to this day.) I just figured that was how the record business was. Then I was approached by Les. He offered me a contract, and his whole operation was very different. I saw that her was an honest man, and I felt very safe with him, and so I signed, and I’ve never had any regrets. We developed a beautiful friendship over the years. When I was really troubled, I could talk to him. He helped me a lot.
So here he is at the door, and I walk in, and I’m afraid to meet these guys because they’ve been playing with Miles and they’re at the pinnacle of success in the jazz world. They’re masters. Practicing masters. But here I am and here they are, and I have to act like everything’s cool — “Hi” and “What’s doin’?” “Hi, Red, what’s goin’ on?”
When the amenities are over and Les gets everything up, the balance on the horn and all the microphones, then it’s time to start making the album. Red Garland is looking at me, and my mind is a total blank. That’s always been one of my faults — memory. I have a poor memory, and I can’t think of anything to play. Red says, “Well, I know a nice tune. Do you know this?” He starts playing a tune I’ve heard before. I say, “What’s the name of it?” He says, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” “What key?” “D minor.”
It came out beautiful. My sound was great. The rhythm was great. And I remember in the reviews, by people like Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, they said, “The way Art plays the melody is wonderful. He’s so creative. He makes it sound even better than the actual tune.” Well, what I’m doing, I don’t know the melody so I’m playing as close to it as I can get, and that’s the creativity part. It does sound good because I play it with a jazz feeling, and it’s like a jazz solo, but I’m really trying to play what I recollect of the song.
Les suggested we try a ballad for the next side, so Paul Chambers said, “You know what would be a nice tune for alto and the way you play? ‘Imagination.’ Do you know that?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that. Bah dah dah dahhhh dah…” Red said, “That’s A flat.” I said, “Well, I was just goofing around.” We ran through the melody and the bridge and then I said, “What should we do at the ending?” Red said, “Just do a little tag kind of thing. Just make it a free kind of thing.” I played the melody and then I blew; Red played; Paul played; I came in and just followed along, a little series of chords; and then they stopped and I played a little ad lib kind of thing and we went into the ending. It was just fantastic. “Imagination” on Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It sounded as if we’d been rehearsing for months. That’s the way the whole thing went. We played a lot of things I’d liked but never done. And I really moved them, you know. And that’s something. They’d been playing with Miles! And me being white! They were all real friendly and said it was beautiful, and they dug the way I played. Diane looked at me, like “Would I forgive her?” and “Wasn’t I happy?” And I was so relieved it was over I told her, “Everything’s cool.” So that was the session, and when it came out the people really liked it.
Art Pepper, the jazz saxophonist, wrote, with his wife Laurie Pepper, one of the great books about art and addiction, his memoir Straight Life. After describing his childhood, and his discovery of music, and his development as a musician in the Central Avenue "scene" of the 1940s, and his stint in the Army, Pepper writes, with great frankness, of the sexual compulsions he struggled with as a rising star in jazz. Then he writes about the first time he got high on heroin, and how, in a flash, he realized he had "found God."
"I loved myself, everything about myself, " Pepper writes. "I loved my talent. I had lost the sour taste of the filthy alcohol and the feeling of the bennies and the strips that put chills up and down my spine. I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked at Sheila"—Sheila Harris, the singer who was getting Pepper high—"and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and horned the rest of them down. I said, 'This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I'm going to do, whatever dues I have to pay...' And then I knew that I would get busted and I knew that I would go to prison and that I wouldn't be weak; I wouldn't be an informer like all the phonies, the no-account, the nonreal, the zero people that roam around, the scum that slither out from under rocks, the people that destroyed music, that destroyed this country, that destroyed the world, the rotten, fucking, lousy people that for their own little ends—the black power people, the sickening, stinking motherfuckers that play on the fact that they're black, and all this fucking shit that happened later on—the rotten, no-account, filthy women that have no feling for anything; they have no love for anyone; they don't know what love is; they are shallow hulls of nothingness—the whole group of rotten people that have nothing to offer, that are nothing, never will be anything, never were intending to be anything."
In Pepper's unstuck-in-time rant of resentment (the actual scene is set in 1950, but his voice goes ahead to his stint in prison, and speaks to a number of attitudes he was still coming to terms with as he was composing the book) will of course remind one of Lou Reed's song "Heroin," in which the protagonist, asserting his intention to "nullify [his] life," sneers at "you sweet girls with your sweet talk," and celebrates the fact that "when the smack begins to flow/then I really don't care anymore/abouts all the Jim-Jims in this town/and everybody puttin' everybody else down/and all the politicians making crazy sounds/and all the dead bodies piled up in mounds." The key phrase is "really don't care" and the key word is "really." The ecstasy of heroin, if ecstasy it in fact is, is the ecstasy of genuine indifference. You REALLY just don't care. And really not caring can seem like an exceptional blessing to people of exceptional sensitivity. Hell, to people of average sensitivity, even. Who knows.
Arguably, indifference does not enhance creativity; it shuts out creativity. True indifference creates the craving for more true indifference, because giving a shit about anything, you've figured out once you've properly numbed yourself, is just too fucking painful as it turns out. Who needs it? I turn to Pepper again: "All I can say is, at that moment I saw that I'd found peace of mind. Synthetically produced, but after what I'd been through and all the things I'd done, to trade that misery for total happiness—that was it, you know, that was it. I realized it. I realized that from that moment on I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. That's the word they still use. That is what I became at that moment. That's what I practiced; and that's what I still am. And that's what I will die as—a junkie."
And Pepper did die, in 1982, a junkie who had been up and down and up again and who created some great music along the way; and he created that music, it's pretty clear, in spite of being a junkie. Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, with Paul Chambers and Red Garland, a milestone of hard bop recorded in 1957, made by a strung-out Pepper who hadn't picked up a sax in six months and whose instrument had old dried cork stuck in its neck. And so on. The book has plenty of such stories, and it ends on a particularly good one, in which Pepper recounts being challenged to a cutting session by the great altoist Sonny Stitt on a bandstand in San Francisco. Stitt, Pepper writes, "did everything that could be done on a saxaphone, everything you could play, as much as Charlie Parker could have played if he'd been there. Then he stopped. And he looked at me. Gave me one of those looks. 'All right suckah, your turn.'"
Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins—and live in a completely different world.
Northern Tapes is Kvernberg's most expansive and ambitious recording with his trio (+1) yet; while it remains filled with open spaces and visions of expansive landscapes, Kvernberg contributes, along with bassist Steinar Raknes and drummers Erik Nylander and Børge Fjordheim, no less than ten instruments plus the seamlessly integrated electronics that have become a signature of the Norwegian scene since the watershed year of 1997-98 when Supersilent, Nils Petter Molvaer and Bugge Wesseltoft all burst onto the international scene. If those three were part of Norway's third wave of musicians after ECM Records first brought attention to Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen in the early '70s, Kvernberg and his generation surely represent the fourth wave that has emerged in the new millennium.
If Folk was a significant forward step over Night Driver, then Northern Tapes represents even greater growth. Despite being on the shy side of 40 minutes, Northern Tapes' seven Kvernberg compositions manage to demonstrate the violinist's ever-broadening purview. The layers of Kvernberg's bass violin and looped mandolin, blended with the restrained power of Nylander and Fjordheim and driven by Raknes' unshakable groove create the perfect context for Kvernberg to imbue, on the opening Wood Village," a curious nexus of roots Americana and Norwegian traditionalism, with hints of Indian microtonality and, ultimately, a grand sense of lyricism.
While possessing seemingly limitless virtuosity and compositional intent, Kvernberg has largely eschewed the youthful tendency to overplay and, instead, leans towards creating more ethereal soundworlds and subtle instrumental orchestrations where he bides his time patiently, as he does on the brighter-tempo'd "North," where Nylander and Fjordheim create a cymbal-heavy context for the violinist to evoke a surprisingly bluesy disposition that, as he layers more instruments, leads to a closing solo of long-held tones that fade over a plucked autoharp loop.
Clearly designed for vinyl release as well, Northern Tapes' first four tracks create a contiguous. side-long suite that builds to the climactic "Best Intentions," where Kvernberg solos on bass violin with great care over a near-military pulse and Raknes' arco bass. Rondo-like in its use of repetition, over the course of five-and-a-half minutes, Kvernberg's gradually growing vertical layers lead, after over 18 minutes of ever-shifting landscapes, to a throbbing, pulsating and most definitive finale.
"Coopers Joe" is a brush-driven piece of folkloric beauty, Kvernberg's overall choices of viola (here) and bass violin (elsewhere) invest his carefully constructed lines with a warm, rich timbre that, along with his carefully constructed layers, makes this a surprisingly full-sounding group despite its reliance on only two primary melodic instruments that have limited chordal capabilities.
If much of Northern Tapes seems about texture, groove, melody and patient construction, the album's nearly nine-minute penultimate track, "Leaving Lotte," makes clear that this group can turn up the heat with effortless aplomb, as Nylander and Fjordheim create an open-ended, frenetic dual-pulse that, bolstered by Raknes' ever-reliable but always pliant anchor, gives Kvernberg the opportunity to let loose with a slow-burning bass violin solo that builds in impressive intensity and dexterity to a potent climax.
There are but a few young violinists making a significant mark on the jazz scene, amongst them Zach Brock and Adam Baldych. Add to that list Ola Kvernberg—no secret in Norway, it's time that this remarkable string multi-instrumentalist makes some well-deserved inroads on an international level. Liarbird may be the more epic "special" project, but the chemistry of Kvernberg's four-piece trio, amply demonstrated on Northern Tapes, makes it both epic in its own right and the ideal entry point to hear what Norwegians already know about this world-class violinist/multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader.
Classical form: The first movement, indeed, has sonata form in its structure, but the ironic scherzo is scarcely the innocent dance of Haydn or Mozart. The third movement, variations, the only symphonic movement Mahler wrote in this style, does fit the classical form. But a song for a fourth movement! That scarcely fits into the "classical" mold. Is this, then, Neo-classical, a call back to the past, as later evinced by Hindemith, Stravinsky, or Prokofieff's "Classical Symphony"? Mitchell, in the Companion argues: No. He writes, in The Wunderhorn Years, after discussing the complexities of the first movement, "Undoubtedly the complexity of this passage [first movement, bars 233-8] was part of the aesthetic game that Mahler was playing in his Fourth Symphony: an outwardly simple-minded, even backward- looking symphony (an early manifestation of neoclassicism?), that creates a peculiar world of its own by contradicting, in developments of a demanding complexity and sophistication, the anticipation of simplicity and guilelessness that the very opening of the work seems to arouse (though only momentarily) [e.g., the sleigh bells against a simple theme in woodwinds].There are many printed editions which do not conform well with the final, "Critical," edition prepared by the Mahler Society in Vienna and published in 1963. Even that edition had mistakes in spelling, placement of clefs, etc., but no wrong notes. Just published, James Zychowicz's book (Oxford University Press), Mahler's Fourth Symphony, describes the evolution of the score through the various manuscripts and versions. His final chapter contains fourteen pages of changes and corrections, e.g., reducing woodwind doublings and changes or clarifications of both dynamics and tempo markings. It is the "final" and best corrected edition which Robert Olson conducts at MahlerFest XIV.Mitchell then remarks in The Companion, "The Fourth, to my mind, represents a manifestation of Neo-Classicism peculiar to Mahler himself, an awareness of and reflection on the role he himself and his work(s) in progress might play in the still evolving history of the idea of the symphony. The Fourth, or one significant dimension of it, spells out the impossibility of rolling history back or complacently attempting to continue in the line of - wake of, rather - the Great Tradition." So much for this being a "classical" symphony.
Childlike: Adorno, in his provocative but dense little book, argues the thesis that Mahler's symphonies are like novels - the themes are characters, who appear, disappear, and appear later in much transformed guises. He also characterizes the Fourth as representing "innocence, e.g., the innocence of the child who describes heaven in the Fourth movement, and experience." Mitchell, as seen above, argues that the innocence only seems to be innocence, and as the symphony is indeed composed backwards, then why does experience come first, followed in the last movement by innocence?Adorno has a somewhat non-conventional idea that the sleigh bells at the beginning are really "a fool's bells, which, without saying it, say: none of what you now hear is true." Jonathan Carr points out to me "as for why the whole thing begins in a very complex way and becomes simple, may be the philosophical/religious/metaphysical point behind the whole work: 'Except that ye become as little children ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'"The music is, itself, easy to listen to, and that perhaps is why the Fourth is one of the most played of all the Mahler Symphonies. Mahler's friend and great champion, Willem Mengelberg, conducted a total of over 400 concerts with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in which a Mahler work was featured. In over 200 of these concerts, it was the Fourth Symphony!
Brief history: Mahler was happy with this work, confident that he had produced a symphony that everyone could understand and like. However, the Fourth met hostility from the critics from the beginning. They had been used to Mahler's providing a "program," but except for the words of the fourth movement, he did not for this one. The public also took its time to warm up to it. After the gigantic Second and Third, what could they make of a simple opening of sleigh bells, with flutes 1 and 2 mimicking them and flute 3 playing a "naive" little tune? The one success Mahler enjoyed with the Fourth is when, at the invitation of Mengelberg, he conducted it twice in one concert. Alma was confused later when, in her writings, she said that Mahler conducted it once and Mengelberg the second time, another myth repeated too many times by careless commentators.Mahler revised the Fourth constantly after rehearsals and performances. Mahler's last correction happened at a rehearsal in New York a few weeks before he became too ill to conduct and then left for Vienna to die of a streptococcus infection in his heart, the bacilli having localized in his defective mitral valve. During the rehearsal, Mahler heard a "wrong" note. He stopped the orchestra and asked who had played incorrectly. It turned out that the "wrong" note was in the score of one of the orchestral parts. Mahler immediately asked that the publisher be cabled with the correction.
This is just the first of many, many of these paradoxes present in Mahler’s 4th Symphony. It’s often described as his simplest and most straightforward work, and on some levels it is, but it is also his most multi-layered, most contradictory, most enigmatic, most paradoxical work. Nothing in this piece is as it seems.
The end of the piece is the most gentle and understated in any of the symphonies, yet Mahler called the Fourth the culmination of all his early works- Das himmlishce Leben is not just the finale of this symphony, but of the entire first half of Mahler’s creative life. That gentle song had more significance for the composer as an arrival point than any of the amazing, epic, cathartic, heaven-storming Finales of the first three symphonies.
The symphony seems to stand apart from the rest of the Mahler cycle by virtue of its brevity, the modesty of the orchestration and its general avoidance of the grand gesture, yet it is the most central to understanding Mahler- it is the work with the most diverse, important and profound connections to his other works. It introduces important themes we’ll hear again in the 5th and 6th Symphonies and the Kindertotenlieder.
It also seems to be the most technically straightforward of Mahler symphonies for players and conductor. From the conductor’s perspective, it would seem to be, by far, the easiest of the cycle. After all, the 2nd has all that insanely complex music with the offstage band to coordinate, the 3rd is full of tricky rhythmic modulations and treacherous transitions, the 5th has that ferociously complex 2nd mvt, then that awkward Scherzo in which the tempo always seems to work best in that uncomfortable place between in 3 and in1. Gergiev just wrote an essay in the Gramophone bemoaning the titanic technical difficulty of the 7th, which is mercilessly difficult for the players and the conductor. 6, 8 and 10 are minefields of mixed meter in places, the Rondo Burleske of the 9th might be the most complex movement in the repertoire, and even Mahler didn’t know how to conduct Das Lied von der Erde.
Alone out of the cycle, there is nothing in the 4th that looks like an audition piece for conductors, but it takes the most skill, preparation, maturity and experience to bring off. All of the other symphonies offer a certain safety of the grand gesture- for instance, several have long accelerandi (or gradual increases in tempo), something that is always hard to pace and coordinate, but in every other case, those accelerandi lead to a very fast tempo and a very noisy climax. The build-up of tempo in the first movement of the 4th goes on for quite a while, but arrives only at a moderately fast tempo- if you go beyond that point of moderation, the character is lost, and if you don’t go far enough, the development feels static and stuck. Again and again in the symphony, you have to turn corners with a degree of precision and a lack of room for error unique to this piece. It’s much the same for the players.
Much as the piece often sounds quite straightforward, that outward simplicity belies a ferocious inner complexity. The first movement, which sounds so direct and accessible, has some of the most contrapuntally intricate music in the symphonic repertoire, and each of those voices must be balanced and shaped. Then, just think what Mahler found in that simple song that ends the symphony- enough musical ideas to build two large symphonies!
A huge part of Mahler’s genius is in his ability to create music in which seemingly incompatible ideas are able to coexist in a way that feels truthful. This state of being seems far removed from our modern mindset- we live in an era of taking sides. Life today is held to be happy or sad, not happy and sad. Our public discourse and our critical mindset doesn’t easily allow for mixed emotions. Even in music, we seem limited to only letting music be one thing at a time. Many years ago, many conductors and musicologists thought the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony was about death, now a new generation of scholars tells us it is about love. Can’t it be both? What is more quintessentially Romantic than this mingling of love and mortality? More of that soon, I’m sure.
The 4th is about innocence and danger, about youth and mortality, about serenity (what could be more serene than the end of the symphony) and menace (what could be more menacing than the 2nd Mvt, in which the devil himself fiddles away?). For a conductor, it all needs to be characterized in a multi-layered way, but nothing (other than the nastiness of Freund Hein’s violin solo in the Scherzo) can be too overdone.
Take, for instance the very beginning of the symphony. What could sound more innocent than sleighbells, and even if they might hide some hints of mystery and menace, that elegant ritardando at the end of the 3rd bar which begins that exquisitely graceful main theme must surely be a sign that all is well in the world.