Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Totenfeier, for orchestra (1888) [22:32]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Wayfarer Songs) (1884) (Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht [3:38]; Ging heut Morgen übers Feld [3:47]; Ich hab'ein glühend Messer [3:08]; Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz [5:11])
Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 21 January 2011, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Booklet text in German with English translations
SIGNUM SIGCD259 [38:18]
I nearly choked on my coffee when I saw that this all-Mahler disc lasted for only 38 minutes. I felt that the performances would have to be exceptional to make up for the meagre timing. On the night at the Royal Festival Hall Jurowski’s programme included Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal and Lizst’s Les Préludes so it’s perplexing why they couldn’t have been included.
The performers on this Signum release the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was formed in 1986 and play using period instruments. It may seem strange to choose to play a Mahler programme on period instruments a composer who has become strongly associated with lush rich sounds played by massive forces. But I was fascinated to hear Mahler played with conditions similar to that he might well have heard himself.
Mahler’s first orchestral score the Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) was composed in 1888 and the composer never heard it performed. The Totenfeier was intended as a stand-alone symphonic poem a massive twenty three minute with a funeral march. This is the first time I have heard this original version that lay dormant until 1982; not getting published until 1988. It seems that Mahler put the score in the drawer. It was only after writing the Symphony No. 1 that he returned to the Totenfeier making various revisions and refashioned the music into the opening movement of his Symphony No. 2Resurrection’. In this period instrument performance from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment it is easy to distinguish that the textures are sparer, not as bottom heavy as on modern instruments. In particular the sound of the period strings is more luminous and clean textured without the weight and some of the sweetness of the traditional metal strings. Modest use of vibrato is another feature of the performance. Throughout I was struck by the taut rhythmic control that Moscow born Vladimir Jurowski exerts over the responsive playing. In this disciplined and straightforward performance Jurowski manages to communicate the ominously dark undercurrent of Mahler’s writing. Although I still prefer Mahler played on modern instruments it didn’t take too long to become accustomed to this lighter and pellucid approach to playing Mahler. Of the small number of recordings of the original Totenfeier movement in the catalogue probably the most notable is the 2004 release from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly on Decca.  

In 1884 aged 24 Mahler was working as an assistant Kapellmeister in Kassel when he wrote the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Wayfarer Songs). The songs are settings of Mahler’s own texts inspired by the collection of German folk poetry Das Knaben Wunderhorn. The Wayfarer Songs were written in the wake of the breakdown of his love affair with actress/singer Johanne Richter an actress/singer in the cast at the Kassel opera house. Originally written for low voice and piano Mahler later orchestrated the settings. Born in County Durham in the North of England Sarah Connolly is one of the finest mezzo-sopranos on the world stage today. In full voice Connolly seems at home in Mahler’s Wayfarer Songs conveying liberal amounts of feeling with impressive diction and protection. In the first setting Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When My Sweetheart is Married) Connolly’s voice is in splendid condition singing with unerring sensitivity. It’s only a minor point but I didn’t like her machine gun-like ‘r’ rolling at 0:19 (track 2). In the wonderful second setting Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I Went This Morning over the Field) Connolly is immediate, enunciating the blissful text with such moving expression. Here I did feel that Connolly seemed a little less comfortable with her highest notes than on the recordings from Von Otter/Gardiner; Fassbaender/Chailly and Baker/Barbirolli. I was also moved by the moving and gloriously sung third setting Ich hab'ein glühend Messer (I Have a Gleaming Knife) with Connolly secure and compelling as the tormented lover likening his unrequited passion to having as blade at his heart. Although I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Sarah Connolly singing the Wayfarer Songs I’ll continue to reach for my four favourite performances. Principally from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelík recorded in 1968 at the Hercules hall, Munich on Deutsche Grammophon. I also greatly admire Dame Janet Baker/Sir John Barbirolli from 1967 at Abbey Road, London on EMI; Brigitte Fassbaender/Riccardo Chailly 1988/89 Jesus Christ Church, Berlin on Decca and Anne Sofie von Otter/John Eliot Gardiner recorded live in 1993 at Hamburg on Deutsche Grammophon.
I asked myself at the start of this review is this an exceptional recording? Well my answer would be no to ‘exceptional’ but it is certainly an ‘impressive’ recording in spite of its short playing time. The Signum release has the attraction of featuring the rarely performed Totenfeier plus the unusual factor of being performed on period instruments. Recorded live in 2011 at the Royal Festival Hall the sound quality is cool, clear with a satisfactory balance. In addition I can report that full texts with English translations are included. I look forward to the impressive Sarah Connolly releasing a recording of Mahler’s set of Rückert-Lieder.
Michael Cookson
Not exceptional but certainly impressive in spite of short playing time.