You take the time and go to the expense and trouble - and risk
in these straitened times - of recording a Mahler recital by
one of the foremost Lieder recitalists of the day. You include
songs from Mahler’s youth which are rarely recorded. You
then you issue the disc complete with a 24 page booklet which
includes an essay and biographies in two languages. For some
reason you provide neither texts, the composer’s dates
nor the total timing for the complete programme. Nor is there
even the usual invitation to download texts from the website.
Leaving aside these irritations, this is a recital which I would
place in the ambiguous category of “interesting”.
Bo Skovhus is an experienced practitioner of the art of Lieder
recital and is renowned for taking risks with his interpretations.
He has plenty of voice when he so chooses, even if a certain
throatiness is creeping in these days, so I wonder why he made
what was clearly a conscious decision to be recorded so closely
that he could frequently indulge in near crooning and sing nearly
all the notes above E in falsetto. When all three top Fs in
“Liebst du um Schönheit” have been executed
the same way in falsetto within a song that lasts less than
two minutes, the trick takes on the appearance of a mannerism.
When Skovhus actually uses full-voiced lower register for the
top G, swelled in a messa di voce at the climax of “Der
Abschied” it comes almost as a surprise - not to mention
a relief. All that whispering does indeed create an atmosphere
of intimacy and concentration but it also exacerbates the rather
plaintive and unvaried quality of his baritone which can wear
thin over a recital of - how many minutes? I don’t know;
as I said you have to add it up yourself.
The close miking also means that any minor imperfections, bobbles
in tone or slight lack of steadiness - a flaw inevitably inherent
in singing so softly so much of the time - are magnified. He
has a habit, too, of introducing little expressive bulges into
the line which can become wearisome as they occur at the expense
of a true legato.
“Um Mitternacht” is understandably the song in which
he most loosens up to do justice to the drama of the text and
music; he again sounds the top Fs and Gs in truer lower register
and provides the kind of rousing intensity which the recital
as a whole lacks. On the other hand, in an attempt to provide
tension, he delivers “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”
at such a lick that it loses its charm and pathos; most artists
take half as long again to avoid gabbling it.
Despite the voice being so forward, we are happily able to hear
every nuance of Stefan Vladar’s pianism; it is a real
tour de force: rich in tone, subtle in dynamics and wonderfully
vivid in the way he suggests the tolling bells in “Um
Mitternacht”. The long instrumental section, too, at the
heart of “Der Abschied”, is played in masterly fashion.
He must be the finest accompanist on the circuit today.
The programme itself is carefully and aptly devised: we move
chronologically from the Romantic milieu of nature, soldiers,
lovers parting and the like depicted in the Wunderhorn songs,
through the introspective Angst of the “Rückert-Lieder”
to the metaphysical transcendence of “Der Abschied”.
Thus the songs span more than twenty years of Mahler’s
output. It is absorbing trying to pick up and place melodic
themes and snippets which have been incorporated into the earlier
symphonies; thus in “Nicht wiedersehen”, despite
not having any texts, a listener with a bit of German will recognise
“Ei du, mein alleherzliebster Schatz” as providing
the tune in the middle section of the third movement of the
First Symphony which is marked “Sehr einfach und schlicht,
wie eine Volksweise” - “very plain and simple, like
a folk song”.
Those early “Wunderhorn” songs are mostly new to
me and I welcome the chance to hear them interpreted by so experienced
a singer despite my reservations about a certain gruffness in
his voice and some distracting mannerisms. This is not a recital
which is going to belong to my list of favourites.
Masterwork Index: Rückert-Lieder