Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das klagende Lied (1878-1880) [62:37]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Fiddler’s Child (1912)* [14:37]
Teresa Cahill (soprano); Dame Janet Baker (mezzo); Robert Tear (tenor); Gwynne Howell (bass); *Bela Dekany (violin); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. 20 July 1981, Royal Albert Hall, London; *9 May 1979, Smetana Hall, Prague. ADD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5080 [77:20]
Das klagende Lied is probably the least-frequently performed or recorded of Mahler’s major works. Indeed, many of the leading Mahler interpreters - including Abbado, Bernstein, Solti and Tennstedt - may well have never performed it; certainly none of them recorded it. I’m unsure if Haitink has conducted it though Rattle and Tilson Thomas have both recorded it. So, it’s a pretty enterprising choice for ICA Classics as an illustration of the art of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Come to think of it, Janáček’s The Fiddler’s Child isn’t exactly standard repertoire either. Both of these performances were given during the period when Rozhdestvensky was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1978-1981); indeed, the Mahler comes from what I imagine was his last Proms series. I remember, as an avid Radio 3 listener, how daringly different many of Rozhdestvensky’s programmes were during his all-too-brief time at the BBC.
Mahler’s cantata, for which he also wrote the text, is an early work. He based the text on a story that he found in an anthology of German folk tales, onto which he grafted some elements of a tale by the Brothers Grimm. The work is in three parts and, in brief, the first part, ‘Waldmärchen’(Forest Legend), is the scene-setter, telling of two brothers who set out into the forest to find a flower; the queen has promised to marry whoever can find and bring her a specimen of the flower. The younger brother finds the flower but is murdered by his sibling who steals the flower and sets off to claim the queen. In Part Two, ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel), the minstrel of the title comes across a bone from the murdered young man and makes it into a flute which, when played, tells the story of the murder. In Part Three, ‘Hochzeitstücke’(Wedding Piece), we see the wedding of the elder brother and the queen but the minstrel spoils the party by arriving and playing his flute. When the brother accuses him of the murder the queen’s castle falls to the ground and no one lives happily ever after.
The work was not performed until 1901 and by then Mahler had dropped Part I. In some ways this was understandable because the surviving two parts formed a tauter musical structure - ‘Waldmärchen’ represents nearly half the length of the entire score and does ramble somewhat at times. However, playing the work shorn of Part I makes little sense - though that was how it was often given for many years - because without that music we are plunged straight into the story in media res with little or no sense of context. Happily, and rightly, Rozhdestvensky plays the complete score. The cantata may not be vintage Mahler but in this score the young composer is visibly flexing his compositional muscles. He handles the large orchestra with assurance, scoring the work very colourfully and pictorially - note, for example, the use of offstage instruments in Part III, a detail that I believe Mahler added to the score during the 1890s. Furthermore, it’s fascinating to hear pre-echoes of music yet to be written; little phrases and details of orchestration that were worked in to later scores tease the ear from time to time.
Although Robert Matthew-Walker’s note tells us relatively little about the music he is informative about the Russian tradition of Mahler performance and about Rozhdestvensky’s place in that tradition. Apparently, he was the first Russian-born conductor to perform and record all the Mahler symphonies. Certainly he makes a most effective job of conducting Das klagende Lied. He’s ably supported by a good team of soloists. The bass only features in Part I but Gwynne Howell’s imposing vocal presence makes one regret that. Teresa Cahill certainly has the range, dramatic flair and vocal heft that the soprano part demands though her words are often indistinct through the use of a generous vibrato. The outstanding soloists are Dame Janet Baker and Robert Tear. Dame Janet sings with the sort of intensity that she customarily brought to, say, Das Lied von der Erde - sample, for example, her singing towards the end of Part I in the passage beginning at ‘Ihr Blumen, was seid ihr vom Tau so schwer?’ Robert Tear is equally vivid in his singing and I found his performance compelling.
Both the chorus and the orchestra respond keenly to Rozhdestvensky’s direction, giving him colourful, dramatic and often powerful singing and playing. Rozhdestvensky’s conducting is full of energy and dramatic thrust. He knows this is a melodramatic tale so there’s no point in underplaying things. This is an exciting and communicative performance.
The Fiddler’s Child was included in a concert that Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave in Prague in 1979. It may not be a major Janáček score but it’s by no means negligible and this is an enjoyable performance. The score contains a prominent solo violin part and it’s good to be reminded of the artistry of Bela Dekany, at that time, and for many years, the distinguished leader of the orchestra.
The recorded sound for both performances is very good. The recording of Das klagende Lied is described as a new re-mastering, suggesting that it’s been available previously on CD. However, the Janáček appears on CD for the first time.
Having given us such an interesting and enterprising issue it’s a pity that ICA Classics let themselves down badly in the matter of documentation. The notes say very little about the music itself. I doubt Robert Matthew-Walker is to blame for this because I suspect he was writing to a brief. This is an artist-led series so the emphasis in the note is on Rozhdestvensky. That’s fair enough up to a point but this music may be unfamiliar to many purchasers and more information about the pieces would have been welcome. Even more regrettable is the absence of texts and translations. Unless a purchaser already has a recording of Das klagende Lied access to the text is unlikely to be easy (try here) yet it’s essential if one is to understand what is going on. Eight of the fifteen pages in the booklet are given over to advertising other issues in this series. I’m sure others will feel, as I do, that much of this space could have been put to better use for commissioning a more detailed note and providing the texts. After all, this isn’t a bargain-priced series of discs.
However, despite the disappointing documentation purchasers of this disc will acquire two excellent, well-recorded performances of interesting repertoire which is slightly off the beaten track.
Two excellent, well-recorded performances of interesting repertoire which is slightly off the beaten track.
Since the above review appeared we have been contacted by Prof. Gary B.Cohen, Professor and Chair of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA who advises that Bernard Haitink did indeed record Das Klagende Lied, in the two-movement form which omits Waldmärchen. The recording was made in 1973 and the soloists were Heather Harper, Norma Procter, and Werner Hollweg. Most recently it has been available coupled with Haitink’s 1966 recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the Philips/Universal “Originals” series.
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