In Gustav Mahler's first four symphonies many of the themes originate in his own settings of folk poems from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn). A case in point, Symphony No. 4 is built around a single song, Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) which Mahler had composed some eight years earlier, in 1892. The song presents a child's vision of Heaven and is hinted at throughout the first three movements. In the fourth, marked ‘Sehr behaglich’ (Very comfortably), the song is heard in full from a solo soprano instructed by Mahler to sing: ‘with serene, childlike expression; completely without parody!’
The symphony is scored for a typically large, late-romantic orchestra (though without trombones and tuba) and an extensive percussion section which includes sleigh bells as well as glockenspiel. However Mahler mostly deploys his forces with a transparency and lightness more akin to chamber music or eighteenth-century models like Mozart or Haydn. The Fourth has become one of his best-loved symphonies, and is here performed by Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, joined by the angelic voice of English soprano Carolyn Sampson.