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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Totenfeier (1888) [22:32]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [15:44]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 21 January 2011, Royal Festival Hall, London. DDD
German texts and English translations included


How far forward will the period instrument movement reach? Performances have already been given and recordings issued of orchestral music by Brahms, Wagner and Elgar on instruments of the relevant period; such of those that I’ve heard have often been illuminating though I’m aware that they can be controversial also. Now – and with a certain inevitability, perhaps – here are some performances of music by Mahler on period instruments. These come from a 2011 concert, which also included music by Liszt and Wagner. It was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Jim Pritchard.
I’ve already experienced Vladimir Jurowski in Mahler. Not too long ago I reviewed a CD of his live 2009 performance of the Second Symphony. That was with the other UK orchestra with which he’s associated, the LPO. I was somewhat underwhelmed by that recording but curiosity – and the opportunity to hear a favourite singer, Sarah Connolly – drew me to this release.
Totenfeier (‘Funeral rites’) is, effectively, a first draft of the first movement of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony though Mahler conceived it as an independent tone poem. He subsequently revised the music – improving it thereby – including enhancing the orchestration somewhat and it became the first movement of the much larger symphony we now know so well. Despite the changes the overall shape and structure of the movement as it became is readily recognisable in Mahler’s first thoughts. In recent years one or two conductors have recorded Totenfeier, including Riccardo Chailly and Paavo Järvi (review). There are several occasions where the seams show (for example between 10:56 and 12:09 in this performance) and it seems to me that Mahler’s second thoughts and tauter structure are infinitely to be preferred.
Unsurprisingly, since the music is so similar, Jurowski’s conception of Totenfeier will be familiar to anyone who has heard his account of the Second Symphony. What holes it below the waterline as far as I’m concerned is his brisk tempo for the opening music (to 2:05), which, of course, is replicated whenever music derived from this material subsequently crops up. No one wants the funeral march to drag but Jurowski, in his urgency – or haste – invests it with no gravitas at all. Indeed, the march almost sounds jaunty. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the use of period instruments but the music seems to lack any weight. The slow, nostalgic episode (from 5:15) fares better. The suspenseful build-up to the ending (from 19:12), which is pretty much as we know it from the symphony, is well done. However, Totenfeier is little more than a curiosity and I don’t think Jurowski makes a good case for it anyway.
I enjoyed Sarah Connolly’s account of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. She brings fine tone and excellent expression to ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’. Here the accompaniment is intimately delivered by Jurowski and the OAE with details lightly touched in. Miss Connolly’s singing in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ is often frantic – appropriately so – and energised and the accompaniment has bite. The section beginning at “Wen ich den Himmel seh” has the appropriate tone of grief. In the final song, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ Sarah Connolly conveys the desolate sadness. For the section that begins “Auf der Straße stand ein Lindenbaum” her tone is especially lovely and she sings with fine feeling. Hers is a very good account of these four songs.
Given that performances of Mahler on period instruments don’t happen all that frequently it would have been appropriate if the booklet had included some comments on the instruments used but the succinct notes address only the music. I presume that natural horns and trumpets are involved and there’s the inevitable absence of vibrato among the strings. The orchestra is quite substantial: strings number 14/14/12/10/8, for example. Even so the sound is pretty lean – and quite delicate in the songs, for which, perhaps, fewer players were involved. That said, though I enjoyed the moments of clear textures I can’t say there were any blinding revelations to be heard – and certainly no significant insights from the podium that I noticed. The main attraction here is the singing of Sarah Connolly.
The disc offers pretty short measure, though to some extent that’s recognised in the price.
John Quinn

See also review by Michael Cookson and Leslie Wright