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S & H Recital Review

Alma Mahler: The Songs Klara Csordas, mezzo soprano, Richard Black, piano Wigmore Hall, 23 March 2002 (MA)


Alma Mahler is best known these days for the bejewelled profligacy of her marriages and relationships: after Gustav, who stole her from the arms of Zemlinsky, she bestowed her considerable charms on Klimt, Kokoschka, Gropius and Werfel. But for all her social prominence she lived in an age where women were supposed to swallow their pride for their husband’s greater glory – not much had changed, then, in the half-century since Clara Schumann suppressed her own creative instincts in favour of her procreative duties. It took a crisis in the Mahlers’ marriage, in 1910, for Gustav to wonder what damage he might have wrought in insisting that his wife-to-be abandon composition; since this concert, one of the earliest promotions of the recently founded Gustav Mahler Society UK, was said to be celebrating the centenary of their wedding, it was an apposite, if belated, time to make amends. And it was, apparently, the first time that all of Alma Mahler’s sixteen surviving songs have been performed in public in the UK.

The upshot of the concert was to establish Alma as – if not a neglected genius, and perhaps not even a figure of pronounced individuality – at the very least a capable composer, whose psychological insights into her texts reveals a perceptive intelligence at work, a Viennese mirror of her heady times. And if you wondered if she might have been writing under the shadow of her all-consuming husband, put the thought aside: Alma was her own woman.

The songs were presented chronologically. The chromatic language of the Fünf Lieder (1901–2) serves texts which deal largely with the unstable world of dream and imagined bliss: tonality is liquid, fugitive, presaging the idiom of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Wunderkind who was soon to amaze Vienna –but who was only four when these songs were written. The simplicity of the first of the following Zwei Lieder was therefore all the more surprising – perhaps the folksy refrains of Rilke’s ‘Leise weht ein erstes Blühn’, with their insistence on blossoming, awoke memories of Schubert’s ‘Röslein’; perhaps Alma’s allusions were deliberate.

By the time of the Vier Lieder of 1911 the language is darker even than in the first set of Lieder, the tonality so unstable that the harmony sometimes doesn’t even resolve at all: here Alma is closer to Berg than to any other composer.

The last five songs, written some time before 1924, show a sudden simplicity – sudden, at least, as far as we can plot Alma’s development, which isn’t very. The lushness of the earlier songs is gone, the tonality more secure, the psychological perceptiveness giving way to an almost hymnic quality.

As a husband Mahler had put Alma in her place; now he did it again as a composer, with the Rückert-Lieder interpolated to open the second half of the concert. It showed up the distance between a capable composer and an outstanding one: Alma achieved her ends by complexity, Gustav by economy of means. And less was much more.

The singer for this voyage of discovery was the Paris-based Hungarian mezzo Klara Csordas, once a student of György Kurtág. Hers is a voice of remarkable amplitude and character, dark and rich, and one sensed even at climaxes that she had volumes in reserve and the power to fill a much larger hall. She also paid particular attention to the words, an important consideration in these image-laden songs; a German-speaker without the texts could virtually have lip-read what she was singing. Above all, she believed in the music. And what she could do with music two notches higher she showed with the Rückert-Lieder: the closing pages were met with the kind of silence that you hear only when an audience is moved beyond motion. The pianist was Richard Black, attentive, unemphatically supportive, unfussily seeing to the detail of his part. Black – accompanist, répétiteur, coach, recording engineer and more – is the kind of figure who, largely unseen by a wider public, provides the glue in London’s musical life, so it was good to see him getting some applause full in the face. Spoken introductions were provided from the stage by Roderick Swanston, as eloquent as ever, setting the songs in context and helpfully directing his audience’s ears to what they might look out for.

The Gustav Mahler Society UK was founded only in September 2001, and this was its most ambitious presentation to date. They can reasonably feel pleased with themselves. You can contact them at or at PO Box 33341, London NW11 8XA; the website is at

Martin Anderson

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