I have always felt that the Fourth was the most problematic of all Mahler's symphonies. In competition with the First, many people regard it as being the most accessible of all his works because of its relative length and a seemingly more straightforward musical profile.
But it was the Fourth's allegedly more immediate musicality, what was supposed to be its more listener-friendly content and less demanding tonal landscapes that made it the most puzzling to me. When reckoned in such terms, just what was one to make, for example, of its dreamily rhythmic themes, the deliberate juxtaposition of the grotesque and the sublime, its sweet curtness and its rolling expansiveness? And whether one considers the final movement's setting of "Das Himmlische Leben" from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" to be either inspired or aggravating only adds to a listener's vexation.
In response to the interpretive challenges posed by the work, most conductors appear to opt for the affectionate approach, emphasizing harmonious balance, textural transparency, and an overall cheerfulness of expression. Yet I could not shake the feeling that behind the Fourth Symphony's seemingly bucolic character there were more serious matters afoot, that Mahler--despite the fact that, unlike his two preceding symphonies, there was nothing overtly metaphysical about the Fourth--nevertheless intended the sunny waters of this work to run deep.
It was only recently that I finally listened to Fritz Reiner's 1958 recording of the Fourth, and I found that his reading corresponded to what I have long suspected about the work, namely, that, beneath its generally pleasant exterior, there is a meditative melancholy at work throughout: at times wistful, occasionally sardonically alive, at other times marked by a sense of longing if not outright resignation; in short, Mahler's congenitally brooding nature might be taking something of a break here, but it's not a sustained one.
Comparatively speaking, what characterizes Reiner's approach is his full-throttle display of orchestral detail (at points breathtaking transmitted by the RCA engineers); dynamic and tonal contrasts that do justice to Mahler's lighter instrumentation (without the chamber-orchestra sound some deem essential to this work's performance); and in general a more dramatic handling of the score that reveals just how hauntingly expressive this symphony is both emotionally and philosophically.
Strap on a good pair of headphones and listen to the deliciously aural division and detail crafted throughout: for instance, the way Reiner and the Chicagoans allow you to hear in any given movement (the final one is especially good for this) not only the different sections of the orchestra but also HOW they are arrayed together in his taut but telling handling. Some might find this approach unrelaxed if not strident, but if you let this performance work its magic and submit to this conductor's compelling logic, then you might feel like you're hearing what this symphony has always wanted to tell us.
I have other recordings of this work that I value (Mengelberg, Walter, Abravanel, Kubelik, Haitink, Klemperer, and Abbado--especially the latter two), but Reiner here reveals how Mahler's Fourth is a symphony as lightly serious as any of his others.