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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das klagende Lied (1878-80, rev. 1899)
Brigitte Poschner-Klebel (soprano); Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo-soprano); David Rendall (tenor); Manfred Hemm (baritone)
Wiener Singakademie
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen
rec. live 8 June 1990, Konzerthaus, Wien
German texts and English translation included
ORFEO C210021 [62:10]

In 2018 I had the opportunity to review an excellent boxed set of Mahler performances conducted by Michael Gielen. That box, issued by SWR Music, included all the symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, and the composer’s four sets of songs with orchestral accompaniment. As I commented, “[t]his is a virtually complete survey of Mahler’s orchestral music: only Das klagende Lied is missing.” Now Orfeo have filled that gap with a live recording of Das klagende Lied in its original three-part version.

Mahler wrote his own libretto for this cantata, basing the text on a rather grisly short story contained in an anthology of folk tales, Ludwig Bechstein’s Neues deutsches Märchenbuch (1856). I summarised the plot when reviewing a recording conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky a few years ago. The work is in three parts and, in brief, the first part, ‘Waldmärchen’ (Forest Legend), is the scene-setter, telling of two brothers who set out into the forest to find a flower; the queen has promised to marry whoever can find and bring her a specimen of the flower. The younger brother finds the flower but is murdered by his sibling who steals the flower and sets off to claim the queen. In Part Two, ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel), the minstrel of the title comes across a bone from the murdered young man and makes it into a flute which, when played, tells the story of the murder. In Part Three, ‘Hochzeitstück’ (Wedding Piece), we see the wedding of the elder brother and the queen but the minstrel spoils the party by arriving and playing his flute. When the brother accuses him of the murder the queen’s castle falls to the ground and no one lives happily ever after.

Christian Heindl usefully fills in the background to the composition and evolution of Das klagende Lied in his notes. Mahler wrote the work between 1878 and 1880. He submitted the score as an entry for the Beethoven Prize but it’s no surprise that a jury which included Brahms, Karl Goldmark and Eduard Hanslick was unimpressed (one thinks of Berlioz’s attempts to win the Prix de Rome). Subsequently, Mahler revised the score, eliminating completely Part I ‘Waldmärchen’ and paring back the luxurious forces originally stipulated – for example, reducing the harp section from six instruments to two. After further revision, the two-part score achieved a first performance, with Mahler conducting, in 1901. For a long time, Das klagende Lied was performed in that version but in the last few decades a hybrid version has been adopted by a number of conductors. This involves the restoration of ‘Waldmärchen’, grafted onto the revised version of Parts II and III. That’s what Michael Gielen offers here.

Actually, Das klagende Lied is something of a problem work, I think. Any conductor planning to perform it has to decide between the tripartite score or just Parts II and III, as Mahler settled for in the end. ‘Waldmärchen’ is essential if Parts II and III are to be set in context and because there are musical links with what follows. On the other hand, I think that ‘Waldmärchen’ is musically the weakest part, possibly because it’s also the longest. Das klagende Lied is probably less frequently performed than any of Mahler’s other scores and conductors are clearly divided about it. Some stick to Parts II and III only, including Pierre Boulez (review) and Bernard Haitink, with whose 1973 recording I caught up sometime after reviewing the Rozhdestvensky version. Amongst those who have opted for the three-part version are Michael Tilson Thomas (review), which I’ve not heard, and Simon Rattle, who recorded it in the mid-1980s in Birmingham. Though acknowledging that Part I is rather rambling, I think that it makes more sense to include it in a performance of the Das klagende Lied.

This performance, given in June 1990 in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, is a good one. I think it’s pertinent to say something at this point about the recording itself. It’s a remastering – by Eric Hofmann – of the radio broadcast by Austrian Radio. The remastering itself seems entirely successful to me. However, the original recording conveyed a genuine concert hall balance so the performers, including the soloists, are somewhat more distanced than would be the case in a commercial studio recording. That doesn’t bother me, but it may concern some listeners. There are one or two slight quirks of balance, too. For example, the contrabassoon part is surprisingly prominent around 5:50 in Part I, perhaps because a microphone was placed close to the instrument. Actually, I quite like the rather spooky effect but I suspect that it would have been smoothed over in a conventional studio recording. I could detect no extraneous noises and there’s no applause at the end.

Gielen is well served by his musicians. The two male soloists do well - Manfred Hemm is only involved in Part I. So does soprano Brigitte Poschner-Klebel; I was particularly impressed by her sorrowful rendition of her solo right at the end of Part III (‘Ach, Bruder, lieber Bruder mein’). The pick of the soloists is Marjana Lipovšek, who makes a strong impression throughout and especially in Parts II and III. She’s very impressive in her big solo in Part II (‘Ach, Spielmann, lieber Spielmann mein!’) Generally, the choir sings well though there were a few instances where it seemed that enthusiasm got the better of them and their delivery didn’t sound 100% accurate. The playing of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra is consistently good; the offstage contributions are very distant, as Mahler intended, but perfectly audible.

I found Michael Gielen’s conducting convincing at every turn. Part I does sprawl somewhat, I think, but Gielen keeps the music focused and strikes a good balance between maintaining momentum while, on the other hand, not sacrificing atmosphere. The music of Parts II and III is much more convincing, I believe, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that in these sections of the work we hear more premonitions – including some musical fragments – of the early symphonies which lay in the future. Gielen conveys the drama in these two parts of the work very successfully.

This is a valuable supplement to Michael Gielen’s existing Mahler discography.

John Quinn

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