Songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn"*
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone)*
Conducted by Hans Zender [117:53]
CPO 999 479-2
More Mahler from the Saarbrücken Radio archives conducted by Hans Zender.
The Ninth is from February 1977 and, like his Seventh reviewed last month,
places him among conductors who see Mahler as a composer looking forward
into the 20th century in a less emotionally charged, more dramatically
cogent approach than we are often used to. Tempi faster, contrapuntal lines
sharper, lyricism underplayed. In all a valuable antidote to those conductors
who see Mahler as their personal psychiatric couches but an approach that
can, if overplayed, rob us of a level of involvement in music that is essentially
expressive of the human condition. In the end, that is what happens here.
The first movement promises well and is full of interest. Zender establishes
a firm Andante and this renders much of the music quite restless and edgy.
Not the lugubrious crawl it can sometimes degenerate into under more indulgent
batons. I also enjoyed the closer-balanced woodwinds in this recording,
especially noticeable in 80-107. In the Development Zender's attention to
detail carries much of the argument and note the care with which the timpani
mark out one of the movement's important rhythmic figures. Then at 148-210
hear how the tempo picks up marking again Zender's unwillingness to linger.
The main, fateful climax is crowned by really deep-toned trombones blazing
out the "fate motif" and this is followed by a very strict funeral procession
passage which itself leads to a hedonistic delivery of the main Recapitulation
material. Even in the nostalgic "dying fall" coda Zender's sharpness of focus
remains, though even he relaxes just enough for it to matter.
After a very rewarding performance of the first movement I don't think those
of the other three quite live up to it. In the second movement Zender is
some way from appreciating Mahler's careful dilineation of tempi, as if he's
trying to force a unity that isn't there. I also think the Tempo I Landler
needs more trenchancy even though it's very well played. The Tempo II Waltz,
on the other hand, is splendid but doesn't mark enough of a break from the
Landler. What I did admire was Zender's ear for the detail of the scoring
aided by a fine balance from the engineers. In the third movement "Rondo
Burleske" there's a case to be made for the more deliberate approach, most
famously brought off by Klemperer on EMI. Mostly, however, there needs to
be a sense of wildness and abandon somewhere for the frantic energy Mahler
unleashes to really have an effect. Impressive though Zender is in his held-back
tempo, especially in terms of clarity, I miss the sense of life and death
struggle, of a world going smash, that you get with Walter, Bernstein and
Horenstein, to name three. But it's in the heavenly interlude two thirds
of the way through the movement that my earlier point regarding how this
essentially expressive music can be robbed of a level of involvement by too
much detachment really tells. Zender seems as if he doesn't quite know what
to do with this passage and the same applies to his performance of the last
movement that the interlude itself essentially predicts. At 19:48 for the
last movement Zender is almost as fast as Walter is in his "live" 1938 recording
in Vienna on EMI or Dutton. The difference between them is that Walter somehow
conveys that world of feeling that is so important with vintage playing and
an innate grasp of the music's emotional core. Zender has his own agenda,
delivers it but leaves me wanting a lot more, even though what he has given
us is refreshing.
The radicalism of the Seventh Symphony suited Hans Zender down to the ground
and his stressing of it served only to illuminate that work. The Ninth Symphony
has its radical elements too but there is, crucially, a greater degree of
potent nostalgia in it that the more radical approach can miss, as it does
The Wunderhorn songs come from 1979 and contain a partnership of Brigitte
Fassbaender and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau that has to be a recommendation
in itself. Fischer-Dieskau famously recorded these songs with Georg Szell
conducting on EMI. On that occasion his partner was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
whose rather mannered contribution is not to all tastes. No such problem
with Fassbaender, so this release is especially valuable in that it's the
only chance we have to hear this incomparable artist in these songs. It's
also good to see this performance correctly assigns one singer to each song
since most recordings make the "dialogue" songs duets which was a practice
Mahler never sanctioned. One song usually included in performances, "Verlor'ne
Muh", is missing.
Fischer-Dieskau gives a stunning performance of "Revelge", full of a character
and experience. Likewise in "Der Tambourg'sell" he's the complete Mahlerian
in covering every aspect of these bittersweet poems. Note in this latter
song the pungent muted brass and bitter woodwind accompaniments from Zender
and the orchestra, models of poise and character right through though not,
I think, the equals of Szell's LSO or Prohaska's Vienna Symphony on Vanguard.
Fassbaender is the antidote to singers like Janet Baker for Wyn Morris. In
fact she's very much the counterpart to Fischer-Dieskau in pointing up the
words clearly and with total understanding. In "Lob des hohen Verstandes"
she shows a nice line in humour, far more naturally than Schwarzkopf. Then
in "Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen", sung by Fassbaender alone, the depth
she brings stays long in the mind.
A unique coupling which makes a persuasive purchase. However the symphony
is the weak link in being in the end just too emotionally detached. But the
vocal partnership for the Wunderhorn songs is absorbing and rewarding along
with Zender's fine accompaniment of it.
also Tony Duggan's comparative review
of Mahler recordings