I do not normally think
of Gustav Mahler as a great writer of
song. Indeed, when one thinks of song-smiths,
most would turn to the pop realm, calling
forth names such as Burt Bacharach or
Bob Dylan. Then one would find those
who would opt for Cole Porter, or musical
writing teams such as Rodgers &
Hammerstein or George and Ira Gershwin.
In the realm of German song, Schubert
and Schumann dominate. When Mahler’s
name is mentioned, it is associated
with his elaborate symphonic works.
However, Mahler wrote many works for
piano and voice, including the Wunderhorn
songs and the far-too-little performed
Kindertotenlieder song cycle, both of
which are included on this album. As
Mahler was normally the master of the
grandiose and complex, with his dense
orchestrations for symphonies augmented
to the point of bursting, there is something
very interesting in listening to these
much simpler works, where the composer
has limited himself in instrumentation
to the most intimate of groupings.
Adding to the intimacy
of these works is the fact that Mahler
himself wrote the lyrics in many cases.
While that practice is commonplace today,
in his time it would be far more usual
to set poetry written by another. Where
Mahler did choose to set another’s words,
he still seems to find themes that he
understands very well. Often those themes
are military in matter, and one can
hear the marching of war. Otherwise
he seems often to gravitate toward the
theme of death, which becomes understandable
when one knows that he had seven siblings
die in infancy, lost children of his
own, and experienced his mother’s death
at the age of 15. A morbid fascination
seems to have developed as a result,
and he chooses lyrics written about
those emotions written from the first
person. This gives the singer something
very personal to work with, and directs
the voice to be somber, dark and serious.
The voice of Ralph
Kohn could not be better selected for
these works. His is the rich, dark,
serious baritone that Mahler must have
envisioned. It is a voice that exudes
the pain of loss of love, life or children
that these works tend to deal with.
It masterfully shows pain and forbearance,
the stolid mentality that Mahler himself
must have had: that sense that the world
may attack and assault, but in pain
and loss one simply must continue onward.
There is no despair in this voice, but
there is a masculine pain that is perfect.
The piano parts Mahler
wrote seem to be orchestral reductions
more than simple accompaniments. In
fact, Mahler quotes from his songs in
his symphonies on more than one occasion.
Those familiar with his larger works
will hear several familiar melodies.
The liner notes make a strong case that
these piano reductions were conceived
as separate works from the later orchestral
settings; that they are intended as
independent works, written previous
to the more familiar renditions. Thus
perhaps it is the reviewer’s own bias
toward the orchestral works that make
these songs seem somehow lacking. Certainly
the performances are very well executed,
and the music presented is very challenging.
The Kindertotenlieder presented in the
final five tracks is almost never performed
with a simple piano accompaniment. In
its symphonic realization it has a plethora
of sundry additional instruments, including
two flutes, four double-reeds, five
clarinets of varying ranges, two bassoons,
harp, two horns in F, glockenspiel and
timpani in addition to the normal full
orchestra. Then in the symphonic version
Mahler adds further instrumentation
to the final movement of the cycle.
Thus the piano arrangement lacks the
sonic weight of the symphonic arrangement.
This is not to say
that it is out of place. It is incredibly
delicate as a piano work, and not often
presented in this manner. The difference
is well understood by Graham Johnson,
the pianist, and he does a commendable
job in the performance.
When considering this
album, the listener must decide how
much he or she truly loves the music
of Mahler. These are not truly among
his essential works. In general they
feel like either sketches or piano reductions
of works he would later fully realize.
The performance given
is very well done, and if you are among
Mahler’s "true believers"
you will love this album. For those
outside of that camp, this album is
not truly essential.