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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883?-5, orch. 1893?)

Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht [4.05]
Ging heut morgens uber’s Feld [4.01]
Ich hab ein gluhend Messer [2.55]
Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz [4.51]
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-9)

Revelge [6.44]
Das irdische Leben [3.03]
Lob des hohen Verstandes [2.23]
Rheinlegendchen [3.18]
Der Schildwache Nachtlied [5.07]
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht [2.09]
Verlorne Muh [2.32]
Der Tamboursg’sell [4.52]
Trost im Unglunck [2.13]
Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen [6.18]
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [4.13]
Lied des Verfolgten im Turm [3.55]
Urlicht [5.02]
Recorded 1950 (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), 1951 (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
Josef Metternich (baritone), Radio Symphonie Orchester Berlin/Leopold Ludwig (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen)
Lorna Sydney (mezzo)m Alfred Poell (baritone), Wiener Staatsopernorchester/Felix Prohaska (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
PREISER RECORDS 90536 [67.49]

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This Mahler CD from Preiser Records brings two historic recordings by top singers of their day. The disc opens with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – the "Songs of a Wayfaring lad", a fairly conventional tale of a grief-stricken lad wandering in the hope of forgetting the agony of love. These are performed by the baritone Josef Metternich, who attained fame as an opera singer, specialising primarily in Italian roles, although also venturing into Wagner and Strauss. Leopold Ludwig, distinguished in particular for his interpretations of German operatic and symphonic works, here conducts the Radio Symphonie Orchester Berlin most admirably. It is not the most promising of starts, unfortunately, as Metternich growls and croaks his way through Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht, sounding both rather rough and slightly dreary. His voice comes to life in the next song, Ging heut morgens uber’s Feld, however, which is lively, sparkling and quite sweet. His lovely, rich, dark tone is here very appealing. The ensuing Ich hab ein gluhend Messer shows Metternich’s forte to be the dramatic and wild songs for which his voice is so suited. The song-cycle concludes with Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz, in which Metternich’s voice is slightly strained on the higher notes in the middle section of the song, yet this lends a naivety that is not out of place here, and doesn’t detract.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn comprises the rest of the disc, with Alfred Poell and Lorna Sydney. Poell was another opera singer, who pursued a successful international career whilst remaining closely associated with the Vienna State Opera. Sydney sang at Vienna for much of her working life before returning to her native Australia. The conductor Felix Prohaska was also very strongly tied to Vienna, the city of his birth, where he conducted both opera houses. The songs set folk poems which depict childhood imagination and range from military marches and nocturnes, through tales of love and death to a fantasy world of speaking animals. The songs gave their name to the Wunderhorn Symphonies (numbers 2, 3 and 4), which are partly based upon Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Poell commences with Revelge. As with Metternich, this opening song is a little disappointing. It is slightly lack-lustre and spiritless, particularly at the beginning. Given that it is a song about a soldier who dies, it is sung too smoothly and nicely, and could do with more passion and harshness. What does immediately strike one, however, is the quality of the orchestra, which is extremely good. Poell’s voice is very heavy, dark and sombre, which makes it perfect for songs such as Der Tamboursg’sell, in which he is terribly effective, but slightly less good at certain points in Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, where he needs a little more lightness and spirit. In Lob des hohen Verstandes his voice is a bit too heavy for a song about a cuckoo. Yet he attempts - and succeeds - in injecting comic inflexions into the latter with the he-hawing of the donkey, which is most pleasing. In both this song and Der Schildwache Nachtlied he is slightly wobbly on higher notes.

Lorna Sydney is very good. She creates an aptly sombre air in the heart-rending Das irdische Leben, and a beautifully rich tone in Rheinlegendchen. She depicts the scene well in the lively and lilting Verlorne Muh, and is suitably dramatic and evocative in both Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt and the most beautiful Urlicht (melancholic, and deeply moving). Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen is arguably the most outstanding collaboration on this disc between exquisite singing – tender and sensitive yet powerful, with gorgeous tones - and excellent playing from the impressive and deeply sympathetic Wiener Staatsopernorchester. Just listen to the delicacy of the bird-imitating flutes and oboes, and the transparency of the muted horns – such empathic playing, lush and romantic, as if each member of the orchestra were deeply aware of the every nuance of the singer and responded accordingly.

The recorded sound is not great – rather muffled throughout, too closely miked in places, and there is a terribly distracting and intrusive squeaking, as if of a wheel, during the first song on the disc, as well as the occasional noise such as a loud cough towards the end of the fourth song. Yet this is to be expected, and, to a certain extent, forgiven. The disc has all the trade-marks of a historic recording – the singers employ much vibrato and portamento, are occasionally inaccurate at hitting the right note bang in the centre (especially the baritones when it comes to the higher notes, where we also find their voices rather strained and a little wobbly).That said, the orchestras are fantastic, the picture-painting is remarkable and the singers evoke the spirit of the songs brilliantly.

There are a myriad versions of these works available – ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Furtwängler (EMI), Schwarzkopf conducted by Georg Szell, Barbirolli with Janet Baker, Haitink with Jessye Norman and Shirley-Quirk through to Boult, Klemperer, Tennstedt, Masur (with Siegfried Lorenz) and Neeme Järvi. Each of these recordings has things to recommend it, yet this disc is a worthy competitor – and something of a pioneering recording - and would be worth getting for Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen alone!

Em Marshall

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