Mahler’s songs are all related to his symphonies, some more
closely than others. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of
a Wayfarer’) share actual thematic material with parts of the First Symphony,
while Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from the five Rückert-Lieder
finds its emotional counterpart in the Adagio of the Fifth.
Kindertotenlieder – ‘Songs on the Death of Children’ – are probably
the hardest to place in this way; to express their incredibly harrowing
and intimate exploration of loss, Mahler virtually invented a new musical
language, as well as a new style of orchestration, as delicate and transparent
as chamber music.
The three cycles brought together on this Telarc disc
have been recorded by some of the finest singers of the last fifty years
– Fischer-Dieskau and Baker being the ones that spring most immediately
to mind. So it’s very hard for any artist recording them now to lay
the ghosts of voices past, especially as Andreas Schmidt’s voice has
so much in common with the great F-D. In his mid-baritone register (roughly
around the top of the bass clef) his voice is a ‘dead ringer’ for Fischer-Dieskau’s,
having just the same creamy beauty. This almost uncanny resemblance
is most noticeable of all at the very beginning of the first song on
the disc, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (‘When my love is
wed’), but as Schmidt moves into different areas of the voice, and different
modes of expression, his individuality asserts itself.
He gives a most moving account of Kindertotenlieder.
The feelings expressed can make these songs well nigh unbearable; Schmidt
avoids that by underplaying the emotions, maintaining a certain restraint,
making it all the more devastating when the full tragedy burst through
at critical moments. He expresses perfectly the inconsolable loneliness
of the final couplet of the first song – beginning ‘a small lamp expired
in my tent’ – and manages to emphasise the irony of the following line,
‘Welcome to the joyful light of the world’. Similarly, in the second
song, he rises superbly to the challenge of the ending, with a truly
beautiful high E for ‘Sterne’ (‘stars’).
In the most famous of the Rückert-Lieder, the
song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Schmidt managed (temporarily)
to banish Janet Baker’s mesmerising performance from my mind. In the
lower part of his voice, he has a pleasing and unforced ‘cello-like
quality, which suits the rapt intimacy of this great song ideally. In
the final song, Um Mitternacht (best translated, with apologies
to Thelonoius Monk, as ‘Round Midnight’ [comment received
from Martin Walker - Sorry, but "um" with time indication
means "at" in German; "round midnight" would be
"gegen Mitternacht" or "so um Mitternacht herum".
]) he has to sing with maximum power to match the brass choir,
and it is in this mode that his voice sometimes acquires a brittle edge
to it which will not be to all tastes.
Throughout, López-Cobos and the Cincinatti accompany
most sensitively, and there is much lovely playing, particularly from
the woodwind (despite one sour cor anglais entry in Um Mitternacht).
And the recording is quite outstanding; listen to the way it picks up
the tam-tam strokes in track 3 (2:38), or the ‘soft ‘cello pizzicato
that sets the ‘Lindenbaum’section of the final ‘Wayfarer’ song in motion
(track 3, 2:54).
This then is a very strong contender if you wish to
have all three of these great cycles together on one disc. The booklet
notes and translations by Nick Jones are excellent, though why the back
cover of both booklet and case give one title in English, one in German
and one in German with inverted commas is beyond my understanding! Life
is full of mysteries; never mind – this is still a great CD.