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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das irdische Leben [2:57]
Aus! Aus! [2:48]
Rheinlegendchen [2:56]
Der Tamboursg’sell [5:34]
Wenn mein Schatz hochzeit macht [3:35]
Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld [4:19]
Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer [3:06]
Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz [4:45]
Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen [2:13]
Nicht Wiedersehen [4:28]
Starke Einbildungskraft [1:07]
Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz [4:01]
Scheiden und Meiden [2:23]
Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn [5:34]
Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen [3:57]
Wenn dein Mütterlein [3:31]
Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen [3:06]
In diesem Wetter [5:44]
Ralph Kohn, baritone
Graham Johnson, piano
Recording information not listed DDD
OPERA OMNIA OP2840 [66:04]

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.

Patrick Gary

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