Orchestral songs
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder (1904): (Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n [5.46]; Nun seh ich wohl [4.59]; Wenn Dein Mütterlein [4.25]; Oft denk’ich [3.05]; In diesem Wetter [6.12])
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Wesendonck-Lieder (1857): (Der Engel [3.22]; Stehe Still! [4.04]; Im Treibhaus [6.15]; Schmerzen [2.35]; Traüme [5.07])
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
3 Mörike-Lieder (1888): (In der frühe [2.25]; Denk’es, o Seele! [2.24]; Wo find’ich Trost [5.26])
Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
Ana Bela Chaves (viola) (Im Treibhaus)
Orchestre de Paris/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, Salle Pleyel, Paris, February 1988 (Mahler), October 1988 (Wagner, Wolf)
No essay or texts provided
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 67539-2 [56:12]

I recall this fine disc on its released in 1996 on Erato 0603 14070-2. Subsequently it was reissued in 2003 on Warner Classics Elatus 2564604392.

Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder and the Mahler Kindertotenlieder are coupled surprisingly infrequently and make an impressive collection especially with the addition of three of Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder.

Mahler composed his orchestral song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs for dead children) in 1901/04 to texts by Friedrich Rückert. Following the deaths of two of his children Rückert wrote over four-hundred poems collectively titled Kindertotenlieder. Alma Mahler strongly expressed her discomfort with the subject matter as if composing the Kindertotenlieder would somehow tempt fate. Subsequently Mahler and Alma became haunted by the death of their own child Maria in 1907. Given the mournful nature of the inspiration it is not surprising that an achingly poignant mood cloaks these songs. At times I felt shades of the exotic sound-world that Mahler established a few years later in Das Lied von der Erde. Kindertotenlieder is well represented in the record catalogues today. In the versions that I know well the highest standards are achieved by three mezzo-sopranos and a baritone. Firstly the cherishable voice of Janet Baker with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli from 1967 at the Abbey Road Studios, London on EMI Classics 5 66981 2. There is also the 1988/89 Jesus Christ Church, Berlin account from an intense Brigitte Fassbaender and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Riccardo Chailly on Decca 473 725-2. Another fine performance was delivered by Christa Ludwig with the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. The insightful and persuasive Christa Ludwig recorded the score in 1974 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon 457 716-2. For those wanting to hear a male voice in the Kindertotenlieder the outstanding candidate is the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded in 1963 at the Jesus Christ Church, Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon 477 9375.

Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder is a setting of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of Otto Wesendonck, the affluent merchant who was one of Wagner’s wealthy patrons. Wagner described two of the songs Im Treibhaus and Traüme as ‘studies’ for his three act music-drama Tristan und Isolde. The deeply passionate music of the Wesendonck-Lieder is undoubtedly a reflection of Wagner’s intense feelings for Mathilde. Completed in 1857/58 Wagner originally scored the cycle for voice and piano with the orchestrations undertaken by conductor Felix Mottl. Pride of place for versions of the Wesendonck-Lieder goes to soprano Jessye Norman for the sheer nobility of her 1975 London account with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis on Philips 464 742-2. I also admire the 1993 Dresden interpretation from soprano Cheryl Studer and the Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli for her expressive and creamy vocals on Deutsche Grammophon 439 865-2.

Hugo Wolf had been grief-stricken at the death of his father in 1887 and had gone to an isolated village outside Vienna engrossing himself in the verses of Swabian poet Eduard Mörike. The fruit of this distressing period was the writing of his cycle of 53 songs in 1888 known as Mörike-Lieder. Demonstrating impressive facility Wolf went on to orchestrate a number of them. The three here are in Wolf’s own orchestral arrangements. Probably the finest selection of the orchestrated versions is the 2006 release from soprano Juliane Banse and bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano on Harmonia Mundi HMC 901837.

German soloist Waltraud Meier on this Warner Classics Apex disc of orchestral songs is much in demand internationally especially for her Wagnerian roles. Würzburg-born in 1956, the mezzo-soprano made her international debut in 1980 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires as Fricka in Wagner’s Die Walküre. At the 1983 Bayreuth Festival Kundry in Parsifal brought Meier international success and has become her signature role.

Whilst not being my preferred version of these orchestral songs Waltraud Meier is in excellent voice and is sensitively supported by her long standing collaborator Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris. The first song Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n (Now the sun is rising bright) is sung with the throbbing intensity of heartbreaking grief. I was also moved by Meier’s rendition of the second song Nun seh ich wohl (Now I understand): a searing cry of the pain of grief.

The Wesendonck-Lieder is one of my favourite song-cycles and in the simply glorious Im Treibhaus (In the tropical greenhouse) Meier is achingly tender and perfectly captures the sense of lovers being parted. In Wolf’s In der frühe (At dawn) Meier imparts a dark and chilling feeling of total despair that develops into a contrasting section of hope and positive energy. Meier’s voice is beautifully controlled with enviable diction and a strong projection when required. I was struck by the suppleness of her voice particularly at the top of the register. From dramatically powerful to soft and tender she is able to glide through with ease. Technically one senses that finding the exact pitch is a recurring test for her. The orchestral support from the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim is neat and engagingly alive. Recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris I found the sound quality good but not quite as detailed as those recordings mentioned above. This Warner Apex release states that these are live recordings made by Radio France, however, I could not detect any audience noise or applause. Disappointingly, unlike the original Erato and Elatus re-issues, there is no essay in the Apex booklet and no texts.

This is a fine collection that I will play again often but the competition in Wesendonck-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder is extremely fierce.

Michael Cookson

A fine collection that I will play again often but the competition in Wesendonck-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder is extremely fierce.