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Home/Composer Profiles/Non-British composers/Mahler

Mahler's Song Cycles

A survey by Tony Duggan

Das Klagende Lied

"Das Klagende Lied" ("The Song of Lamentation") is Mahler's opus 1. He wrote it in 1880 at the age of twenty, just two years after leaving college. It's a cantata originally in three parts and based on stories by the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein. Part 1 "Waldmarchen" ("Forest Legend") tells of brother murdering brother in a dark forest. Part 2 "Der Spielmann" ("The Minstrel") shows a minstrel finding a bone belonging to the murdered brother that he makes into a flute that sings human words when played. Finally in Part 3 "Hochzeitsstuck" ("Wedding Piece"), the minstrel goes to a wedding feast in a castle where the murderous brother is about to marry a beautiful Princess. The minstrel plays the bone flute, through it the dead brother reveals the truth, and the castle falls to the ground. The only other work of Mahler's to end like this in total catastrophe is the Sixth Symphony.

"Das Klagende Lied" was not performed until 1901 by which time Mahler had revised it, a revision which included deleting the whole of Part 1, "Waldmarchen". The reasons for this are unclear. Maybe he felt dramatically Parts 2 and 3 work better alone. Maybe at the back of his mind was the death of his own brother Ernst in 1874. Did Mahler feel subconscious guilt at his much loved brother's passing and exorcised his feelings in some way by writing this work? Then, later on, he shied away from telling the world through "Waldmarchen"? Whatever the reasons, for many years "Das Klagende Lied" was performed with just Parts 2 and 3, but "Waldmarchen" turned up again in the 1970s and now the whole work is performed with all three parts. This is, of course, going against Mahler's wishes but the listener at home can choose not to play "Waldmarchen" if they feel any scruples. Ideally if "Waldmarchen" is heard at all, it should be alongside the original orchestration of Parts 2 and 3 prior to the revision which removed it. That too is now possible.

Whether you hear "Das Klagende Lied" complete in three parts or in the way Mahler left it in revision, there is not really any need to own multiple versions. Provided your recording has a chorus, orchestra, soloists and conductor who all know their business you are alright. My own favourite version of the two part version is conducted by Wyn Morris on IMP (PCD 1053). I like it for its sense of drama and, especially in the dramatic passages, a sense of "live" performance.

For performances that include "Waldmarchen" my favourite is the one by Simon Rattle on EMI (5664062) Amazon UK . This is less well recorded than some but is similar to Morris's in having a superb sense of drama and attack in the animated sections and a fine sense of the darker shadows. Alfreda Hodgson and Robert Tear are also among the fine soloists too. Better recorded and almost as compelling is Michael Tilson Thomas on BMG (09026685992)  AmazonUK but, for three part versions, my advice is to go for Rattle. For me Tilson Thomas is a touch self-conscious, less aware that this is a young man's work.

I mentioned that it is now possible to hear the three-part version with Mahler's original arrangements for Parts 2 and 3 - in effect hear "Waldmarchen" in its correct context. The first performance of this score took place in Manchester in 1987 by Halle Orchestra forces conducted by Kent Nagano and that performance is now available on Erato (3984216642) Amazon UK. It is of great interest, not least for the slight differences in instrumentation and the use of boy soloists at strategic moments. However, I don't feel Nagano quite has the feel of Mahler's special mix of Wagnerian-influenced texture along with his own early style and I think we await a better recording of this early version. I heard a splendid broadcast of the piece conducted by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and maintain hopes that one day he might be allowed to record it. 


Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Mahler's orchestral settings of individual poems from the anthology "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn") by Armin and Brentano are crucial to our understanding of his art. Not only do they bear an intimate relationship to many of his symphonies, especially 2-4, they are small masterpieces in their own right. Then, as a sequence, they form a body of work of equal importance to that of any of the symphonies. All but two were written between 1892 and 1896, the remaining two in 1899 and 1901. The character of each is reflected in the orchestration used so great care must be taken to understand the words being used on every occasion. These poems appealed to Mahler for the same reason they appealed to so many of the time: nostalgic yearning after lost innocence, though Mahler's settings are unquestionably of his own time. Broadly there are three groups, or types, of song. Firstly the military songs which contain marches and the imagery of soldiers and warfare (Revelge, Der Tambourg'sell, Der Schildwache Nachtlied, Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen) bringing out memories of Mahler's childhood living near barracks. Next there are the love songs of varying kinds (Verlor'ne Muh, Trost im Ungluck, Das irdische Leben, Lied des Verfolgtem in Turm, Rheinlegendchen, Lied des Verfolgtem in Turm). Lastly humorous songs covering various situations with wit, irony and sarcasm (Wer hat dies Liedel erdacht?, Lob des hohen Verstandes, Fischpredigt.).

For me there are three truly great recordings of this collection for consideration. Recordings that, because of the contributions of conductors and singers, stand them head and shoulders above other versions. They are conducted by Wyn Morris, Felix Prohaska and Georg Szell. Other, more recent, versions under Haitink, Bernstein and Abaddo have virtues too and would grace any collection, but I'm going to leave them on one side in the face of their more established competitors.

First George Szell on EMI (5 67236 2). Amazon UK  His two singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf were artists beyond compare who bring to these songs every ounce of their vast experiences. What is I think in doubt is whether their contributions are appropriate in songs that should have about them an air of homespun simplicity, even roughness. Down the years many have wondered whether the sophistication, mannerism and intelligence presented by the two of them is ultimately too restricting. Maybe this is damning with faint praise but there's no doubt in my mind that on repeated hearings especially some aspects have the tendency to grate. But let's be positive. "Der Tambourg' Sell" was one of Mahler's two later settings. It's a piece almost symphonic in its implications and Fischer-Dieskau delivers a classic account of it with George Szell riveting in support. This track is as good an illustration of the disc's virtues as any. Note the close-in sound with every orchestral detail clear, the superb diction of the soloist, the penetrating vision of the conductor too, all in perfect accord. Fischer-Dieskau doesn't emote quite as much as his partner in any of the songs he sings, but I have the impression he does so more than he might to keep up with her, especially in the songs delivered as duets. Listen to Schwarzkopf on her own in "Lob des hohen Verstandes", for example, and judge whether her pointing-up of certain words - "kraus", for example - isn't just too much of a good thing. Not to mention her "Eee-aws !" in the same song. There are many other examples where, I think, she's a little too "knowing" for her own good: too clever by half, superb though she undoubtedly is. Some of the songs are sung as duets, as they are in most other recordings. Be aware there is no sanction in the score for this practice. Authentic are the versions that assign one song to one singer, as the score expects. The real success of this recording is George Szell, ably supported by a supremely well prepared LSO. He seems to have absorbed these songs into his bloodstream. He can go from the tragedies to the comedies to the romances in the twinkling of an eye and yet retain a sense of an overall plan. No mean feat in this collection and an endless source of pleasure, as also is the sound balance.

Another version where some of the songs are treated as duets is the one conducted by Wyn Morris on IMP (PCD 1035). Amazon UK His singers are Geraint Evans and the young Janet Baker. I make no secret of preferring this version to Szell's. For one thing Wyn Morris is one of the Mahler conductors of the old school and in this recording he brings every ounce of feeling for the special sound world of these songs, which beguiles and fascinates with each hearing. He is also much less sophisticated than Szell, not afraid to roughen the sound of the orchestra and to take a few chances with tempi. For example in "Revelge" he is quicker and more extrovert, even upbeat, but then takes care to make the more reflective passages that much more contrasting. In "Rheinlegendchen" Janet Baker's sweetness and lyricism is a wonderful anecdote to the knowing Schwarzkopf. Geraint Evans is not the cerebral artist that Fischer-Dieskau is, of course. He is much more the "hail-fellow-well-met" which I like very much. In "Trost im Ungluck", sung as a duet, Evans is more "rollicking" than the rather correct Fischer-Dieskau and I think Mahler would have loved it, especially with the deliciously pert Janet Baker in tow. However, Baker can vary her tone wonderfully as can be heard in her expressive "Das Irdische Leben," the story of a mother watching her child starve to death. The sound recording of the Morris version has its problems where Szell's and Prohaska's have come up beautifully in restoration. The Morris suffers from a slight glare full out, but you should soon adjust. Do not let this get in the way of your enjoying this classic version.

Felix Prohaska is less well known than his two colleagues, but on the evidence of this recording, where he conducts the fine Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Vanguard (08 4045 71), this is a pity. His singers are that highly experienced Mahlerian Maureen Forrester and the little known Heinz Rehfuss, and excellent they are too. Interpretatively this version falls between the Szell and the Morris. Crucially, it assigns one singer to each song and for that scores points in my book. This is the more classical version of the three with less mannerism on the part of the three principals and it really should be looked on as the benchmark recording for those who want to get to know these great songs. In "Lob des hohen Verstandes" Rehfuss is more piquant in his delivery than Evans, more ironic. It comes down to personal preference but I just prefer Evans's bluff and earthy honesty. "Der Tambourg'sell" in this recording is very clear and concentrated and is helped by the superbly clear and balanced sound recording.

I would not be without any of these three though the version by Wyn Morris is my marginal preference, as you have probably gathered. The recording conducted by Bernard Haitink on Philips boasts the Concertgebouw Orchestra and John-Shirley-Quirk at his most persuasive. Unfortunately his partner Jessye Norman fails to impress me in her awareness of words and her willingness to enter into the world of these songs. I also enjoyed the recent recording conducted by Claudio Abaddo on DG. Not least for the presence of that exciting singer of the present generation Thomas Quasthoff. Again, however, his partner Anne Sofie Von Otter fails to impress me enough and Abaddo also is just too refined when compared with Morris. Each time I hear Wyn Morris's recording I am convinced his is the one to own. Snap it up whilst it is still available but don't overlook Felix Prohaska.

There are other settings of Wunderhorn poems by Mahler but these are for voice and piano alone and can be found in recordings of all Mahler's earlier songs as "Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit". Janet Baker's splendid Hyperion recording (CDA 66100), Amazon UK in which she is accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons, is one of those small gems of the Mahler discography I recommend warmly to go into your collection. Faultless interpretations of these small jewels from the master's workshop.

Some of these very early songs have also been orchestrated by, among others, Harold Byrns and Luciano Berio. Let me take this opportunity of drawing to your attention a disc featuring another great Mahlerian of the present generation, Thomas Hampson. This is on the Teldec label (Dig.9031 74002-2) and contains eleven orchestrations of early songs by Luciano Berio with the Philharmonia conducted by Berio himself. What I like about them is the fact that Berio doesn't try to think himself into Mahler's mind for songs he himself did not orchestrate. What we get is a genuine collaboration between the two men. You also get a fine version of the Wayfarer Songs thrown in.

Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen


Ruckert Lieder

As you build a Mahler collection you will find recordings of these three song cycles appearing as fill-ups to some of the symphonies. I suspect this is how most collectors acquire their recordings of these works that are as crucial to understanding Mahler's art as the Wunderhorn cycle. "Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen" ("Songs of a Wayfarer") comes from early in Mahler's career and stands in relation to the First Symphony as the Wunderhorn songs do to the three that followed. The five Ruckert Lieder and the "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"), also to words by Ruckert, come from the middle of Mahler's career and have thematic links to symphonies 5-7. It's unlikely anyone would buy a recording of one of the symphonies just to acquire a recording of a song cycle coupled with it so I'm limiting myself to discs that contain only these three song cycles on them.

Janet Baker's collection on EMI (CDM5 66981 2) Amazon UK stands supreme. In each cycle Sir John Barbirolli accompanies her in sublimely sympathetic mood and this partnership delivers one of those rare experiences which illuminates with each re-hearing new aspects of scores you thought you knew well. The Wayfarer songs are buoyant and ripe with the rapture of youth that founders on the ultimate disappointment of frustrated love. The "Kindertotenlieder" touch the depths of noble despair with Barbirolli's complete understanding of both the music and his soloist's needs unforgettable. The Ruckert Lieder then bring an intimacy and personal involvement no Mahler collection can afford to be without. For myself I would willingly listen to these accounts of these song cycles for all time but it should be remembered that Mahler preferred a man to sing them and a male voice does bring a darker hue to Mahler's writing. Fortunately there is a disc by that Mahlerian of equal stature to Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. His accounts of these three cycles with Kubelik and Bohm conducting on DG (415 191-2) are almost as riveting as Baker's. Indeed, they demand to be thought of as complimentary.

Look out also for Kathleen Ferrier's account of the "Kindertotenlieder" with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic on EMI.  Amazon UK Her voice is very different from Baker's but demands to be heard. So too do Fischer-Dieskau's earlier accounts of the Wayfarer songs and "Kindertotenlieder" on EMI, the former conducted by Willhelm Furtwangler. Amazon UK

Das Lied Von Der Erde arranged for chamber orchestra

I have been amazed at the number of people who, during the course of writing these surveys, have contacted me to ask if I'm going to mention the arrangement for chamber group of "Das Lied Von Der Erde" started by Arnold Schoenberg and finished by Rainer Riehn in the 1920s. Clearly it's liked by a lot of people but I must say I fail to see the attraction for the listener today other than novelty. For performers the attractions are clearer. Here is a chance to perform a version of Mahler's masterpiece where all that is needed are a handful of players. For the singers in particular there is no need to pitch the voice against a full orchestra. However, a work that in its original form already performs miracles of chamber style writing surely needs no more transparency and hearing Mahler's wonderful textures changed like this is quite frankly painful. In a previous age this type of enterprise might have been the only opportunity an interested audience would have had to hear the work. Today, with CD recordings and broadcasts, it seems largely redundant, an echo from a previous time. However, if you're determined to give it a try and are, unlike me, prepared to stomach the sound of a piano pounding away in Mahler's masterpiece, the version conducted by Osmo Vanska on Bis (BISCD 681)  Amazon UK seems the best to me with two fine singers.

And finally….

In 1905 Gustav Mahler himself sat down at the keyboard of a Welte Mignon system and produced four piano rolls of four of his own compositions. These have been available intermittently but the easiest way to acquire them now is through the efforts of that indefatigable Mahlerian Gilbert Kaplan, either through the single disc "Mahler Plays Mahler" disc (GLRS 101) or through his two disc "Mahler Album" on BMG (75605512772). Either issue will also give you some of the interviews "Remembering Mahler" that were recorded by William Malloch with members of the New York Philharmonic who could remember playing under the great man. The latter double CD issue will also give you Gilbert Kaplan's own fine studio recordings of the Second Symphony and the Adagietto from the Fifth and a whole program of images connected with Mahler that can be played on your computer. The piano rolls are very interesting. How much they reflect Mahler's real playing style is debatable. The tempi are very quick. That they were Mahler's hands originally at that keyboard is, however, not in doubt, and that is an experience I recommend to everyone.

 Tony Duggan

 Later release

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
5 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn+
5 Rückert Lieder+

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe*
with Daniel Barenboim (piano)+
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM 5675562

see review

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