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Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884)
1. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht [3:53]
2. Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld [3:56]
3. Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer [3:11]
4. Die zwei blauen Augen [5:24]
Kindertotenlieder (1901-04)
5. Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgeh’n [6:08]
6. Nun she’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen [4:49]
7. Wenn dein Mütterlein [4:50]
8. Oft denk ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen [2:47]
9. In diesem Wetter [6:35]
Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn"(1888-89)
10. Revelge [7:14]
11. Der Tambourg’sell [5:39]
12. Der Schildwache Nachtlied [6:00]
13. Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [3:46]
Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone) (1–9);
Håkan Hagegård (baritone)(10–13);
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Gary Bertini
rec. Philharmonie, Cologne, 15-17 June, 1992 (1-4), 18-21 January 1993 (10-13), 22-23 January 1993 (5-9). (5-9) live recording.
CAPRICCIO 71 124 (SACD) [64:44]




Born in the Soviet Union in 1927, Gary Bertini and his family moved to Palestine in the early 1930s. It was in Israel, as it had then become, that he made his debut as conductor in 1955 after having studied in Milan and Paris with, among others, Nadia Boulanger, Arthur Honegger and Olivier Messiaen. He held several important posts in Europe and the US and was principal conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne from 1983 to 1991. After his death in 2005 the Capriccio label started issuing a series of recordings made for West German Radio during that period. This disc with orchestral songs by Mahler is part of that series. He was a versatile conductor and held in high esteem by critics and public alike. For some reason he never secured a regular recording contract with one of the big companies. Accordingly Capriccio’s initiative is laudable and it is to be hoped that the discs will sell in quantities sufficient to motivate further delving into the archives.

Gustav Mahler’s music was central to Bertini (see his Mahler symphony cycle on EMI) and even though on a disc like this it is the singing that comes to the forefront the qualities that make a good Mahlerian are to the fore. His clarity is notable – every strand in the multi-faceted orchestral fabric is uncovered, thanks also to the detailed but atmospheric recordings. Then again the performances have pin-point articulation and rhythmic acuity. Finally he has manifest feeling for the surge of the music and for the overall Mahlerian sound.

For these two song-cycles and the four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn he chose two of the most distinguished male singers on the international circuit, and that paid dividends. They belong to different generations. Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård was 48 at the time and had already an international career of almost twenty years behind him. His fame came like an explosion through Ingmar Bergman’s filmed Die Zauberflöte in 1975. There he was a superb Papageno, but he had made his debut at the Stockholm opera – in that same role – as early as 1968 when he was only 23. I often saw him in this and other roles in the early 1970s. Even then he often gave song recitals and critics quickly established him as a "new Fischer-Dieskau". It is true that his timbre and expressive phrasing had close resemblances to the great Berliner – as also had Håkan’s one-year-older cousin, Erland. The similarities may be less obvious at this later stage of his development, but he evidently retained his lively manner and dynamic phrasing. Also he was never one to sacrifice the text for sheer beautiful vocalism. Like F-D he was a master of ravishing pianissimo singing, which can be heard in Das Schildwache Nachtlied (tr. 12). The first three of these songs (tr. 10-12) are primarily warlike: they march, there is warlike percussion and threatening timpani in Der Tambourg’sell and trumpet signals – all of it evoking memories of Gustav Mahler’s childhood when he lived next door to a regimental barracks. Hagegård is eager, exuberant and involved and as always there is "face" in his singing – most of all in the humorous Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, which is related with tongue in cheek.

Hagegård was always a true baritone. His younger colleague Thomas Quasthoff is a third or something lower and accordingly darker in timbre. He is alternately designated as baritone, bass-baritone or bass and in fact he encompasses all three, which is a certain sign that he is a bass-baritone. He can even lighten his voice so much that one might take him for a tenor. He has for many years been established as one of the most important singers in his range. Here we meet him fairly early in his career. The springboard to recognition was probably his First Prize in the International Music Competition of the ARD in Munich in 1988.

There is no shortage of recordings of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Quasthoff even recorded it himself with Pierre Boulez in 2005. However hearing a singer in his first prime in this music is always a pleasure. I noticed that his tempos are almost identical with Fischer-Dieskau’s in his recording with Kubelik. Even though Quasthoff’s reading is in no way a blueprint of F-D’s it is a good sign, since I have always regarded his tempos as ideal. What stands out immediately is the youthful freshness of Quasthoff’s delivery and the absolute naturalness of his phrasing. Ging heut’ Morgen is so filled with curiosity and joie de vivre: Wie mir doch die Welt gefällt! (O how I love the world!) the wayfarer exclaims; Quasthoff’s voice bubbles over with high spirits. Quite different moods permeate Ich hab ein glühend Messer, where Quasthoff lets loose his powers – uninhibited yet still with full control. Die zwei blauen Augen is pure beauty, sung with soft rounded tone. He may not challenge Heinrich Schlusnus’s hardly audible whisper Und Wel tund Traum! but neither has anyone else. Quasthoff is not as sophisticated as F-D but instead he is the more natural, the emblem of a young singer’s reaction to a young composer’s first mature work.

Twenty years later the same composer completed his darkest, most desperate composition, the bleak Kindertotenlieder, settings of Rückert’s gloomy poems. They can be interpreted in many different ways. One of my strongest experiences in a concert hall was Brigitte Fassbaender’s reading of these songs. No, it wasn’t a reading, it was a naked, self-exposed internal monologue, a confession not directed to the audience, which she hardly saw – so inward and heart-rending was it. Her Decca recording with Chailly conveys something of the same emptiness. Thomas Quasthoff’s sorrow in the first song is also very tangible: Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt (A small lamp has gone out in my dwelling), but it is controlled; there are no tears. His tone is darker; this is the bass-baritone. The third song, Wenn dein Mütterlein is simple in its friendly talk to the beloved daughter. Gradually it grows in intensity but then he is back in his conversation and the sorrow is again skinless: Erloschener Freudenschein! (my light of joy, too soon extinguished!). In the fourth song, Oft denk ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen, there is at least some reconciliation and he lightens the tone as he repeats Der Tag ist schön! but the strings of the orchestra reveal the truth in their cries of despair. In the last song, the stormy In diesem Wetter, he resumes the dark tone, darker than ever, black as the night in fact. His magnificent operatic voice brings out the horrible drama. He reaches reconciliation once more in the final stanza: "In this weather, in this storm / they are resting, as if in their mother’s house / not frightened by any tempest /sheltered by God’s hand." – sung with such hushed beauty that it hurts.

Thomas Quasthoff may sing them differently today but even at this early stage in his career he had so much insight and his voice had the scope to express what he wanted with the utmost accuracy. Old favourites are still valid but I have definitely added this new favourite to my Mahler collection. I have only two grumbles: there are no texts and translations, which should be a must for such penetrating songs, and I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to present the music in a different order: it feels like a blow in the face after the last of the Kindertotenlieder to be thrown into the boisterous Revelge. The Wunderhorn songs would have been a fine opening group. After In diesem Wetter there should have been only one alternative: silence!

Göran Forsling

 

 


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