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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) (1892-1901) [49:19]
Adagio (1910) movement from Symphony No. 10 (unfinished) [24:04]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
The Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
rec. February 2010, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9060 [73:24]

Experience Classicsonline

If in the nineteen-fifties and sixties someone had said that composer Pierre Boulez would conduct a complete Mahler cycle he would have been laughed out of court. This controversial avant-garde composer has been for several decades one of the leaders of the post-war modernism. Famously he is said to have advocated the burning down of opera houses. With IRCAM in Paris Boulez even had his own experimental music institution founded and sustained with state funding.

For Deutsche Grammophon this Mahler disc of Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony is cause for celebration as the hundred year’s anniversary of Mahler’s death approaches. The live recording was made just prior to the anniversary of Mahler's one hundred and fiftieth birthday. The concert with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra formed part of 2010’s celebrations for Boulez’s eighty-fifth birthday.

In the accompanying booklet Boulez recalls how his love of Mahler’s music evolved retrospectively from his passion for the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Now recognised as a specialist Mahlerian final offering from Boulez in his complete cycle for Deutsche Grammophon which has been fifteen years’ in the making. During that time Boulez’s Mahler cycle has been recorded using the orchestras: the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, returning for the final volume to the Cleveland Orchestra with whom he has had a long association.

Mahler’s orchestral song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) is a setting of texts from the collection of German folk poetry compiled and published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. They are stand-alone settings that Mahler arranged into a set of twelve that can be performed in any order. The small-scale Wunderhorn settings are fine examples of how Mahler’s compositional style fluctuates between extremes: the past and then indulging his progressive leanings. For his two soloists Boulez has reached into the top-drawer. In this repertoire mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and baritone Christian Gerhaher are two of the finest around.

There are many ways of performing the Wunderhorn settings. I understand that Mahler did not specify the gender of the singer for this sequence. In the manner of the 1968 classic recording from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I feel that the text of each song is best matched to a particular gender. Four of the Wunderhorn texts seem best suited to the male voice and three for the female. The remaining five have a dialogue appropriate to a duet of male and female voices. In view of this I am rather disappointed that both singers do not jointly perform those five songs. So we have here Gerhaher at various points singing the words appropriate to a woman and conversely Kožená at times singing the words best suited to a man.

I especially enjoyed Kožená’s interpretation of the setting Verlorne Müh’ (Labours Lost). Displaying wonderful diction in the quirky and light-hearted song, the mezzo moves easily across her range. Kožená projects her voice beautifully through the glorious light orchestral accompaniment of the achingly moving Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Fair Trumpets Sound). I love the way she effortlessly glides up her register maintaining that creamy timbre. With the strong martial character of Lied Des Verfolgten Im Turm (Song of the Persecuted in the Tower) Gerhaher adds weight and darkens his voice in sympathy with the prisoner behind bars longing for freedom. I did find the R-rolling from both singers to be rather a distraction.

The interpretation by Magdalena Kožená and Christian Gerhaher is a creditable achievement obtaining a satisfying degree of lyrical beauty. No other account has been able to match the benchmark from which all other recordings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn should be judged: the remarkable pairing Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau from 1968. This landmark recording produced by Walter Legge was made at London’s Kingsway Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra under George Szell on EMI Classics 5 67236 2.

From Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony Boulez has chosen to conduct only the fully-scored first movement, Adagio. He isn’t satisfied with the various attempts to complete the symphony from Mahler’s sketches; finding them too rudimentary to use with any degree of success. I found this interpretation of the Adagio highly convincing. The Cleveland Orchestra are very much at home with Mahler’s music providing responsive playing with a spine-tingling intensity that builds convincingly. The menacing climax at 17:28 comes like a hammer-blow.

The booklet includes a short but interesting interview with Boulez but it’s a shame there is no essay about the music itself. Gratifyingly, full texts of the Wunderhorn settings are included together with English translations. The engineers have provided excellent sound quality, warm with reasonable detail and well balanced too. This is a highly satisfying release and a worthy conclusion to Boulez’s complete Mahler cycle for Deutsche Grammophon.

Michael Cookson

























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