We are today mainly familiar with Mahler’s songs in their orchestral guise, but during his lifetime the composer certainly considered that his works in this genre could work perfectly well with piano accompaniment. Indeed he himself recorded a piano roll of a transcription of Das himmlische Leben
, which constituted the last movement of his Fourth Symphony
. There are subtle differences between the orchestral and piano versions of the songs – most noticeable in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
and Das irdische Leben
– which although barely noticeable do lend a slightly changed emphasis to the music.
Janina Baechle has a nicely rounded tone, although she shows some signs of strain in her upper middle register. These are particularly noticeable in the dramatic declamations of Revelge.
She also shades her voice with delicacy, and obtains some nice sense of meaning where the orchestral accompaniment might have demanded the use of a broader brush. Even so it has to be said that Mahler’s orchestral versions generally have a richer sense of line. Listening to the piano versions, the ear is constantly subconsciously supplying the colour of the cor anglais in Ich bin der Welt
or the brass chorale at the beginning of Urlicht.
Mahler did include Urlicht
in the set of fourteen songs published in the Universal Edition vocal score of Des Knaben Wunderhorn
, but it is nowadays much better known as the fourth movement of the Resurrection Symphony
. The long held chords which underpin the opening verse really don’t come over well on the piano. It is noticeable that in his piano roll of Das himmlische Leben
Mahler adopts a surprisingly quick speed for the opening and closing sections of the movement. This may be a reflection on his realisation that the piano simply couldn’t sustain a slower speed to satisfactory effect. Here one also notices the substantial orchestral interlude between the first two verses which sounds rather over-extended even when delivered with gusto by Markus Hadulla on the piano. It is unfortunate that these two symphonic movements form the first two tracks on this disc, since they bring into immediate focus the unsatisfactory nature of the piano as a sustaining instrument. On the other hand, we don’t object to this in Schubert’s Doppelgänger
, and Mahler himself clearly had no trouble envisaging the music in this form.
Baechle is currently making a career for herself in the German romantic repertoire, including Wagnerian roles. She clearly shows a feeling for words which will stand her in good stead. The sense of strain which I mentioned might well be less apparent with an orchestra providing more substantial support to the voice. Other singers have recorded these songs with piano accompaniment, although Urlicht
and Das himmlische Leben
are comparative rarities outside their symphonic context. Choice will depend upon the listener’s personal reaction to the interpretations of Fischer-Dieskau among others. Her selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
is clearly a personal one, highlighting the elegiac settings rather than the more outright humorous ones. She doesn’t match the thin silver ribbon of sound that Janet Baker furnished in the final verse of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
(with orchestral accompaniment), but then who does?
The recording is finely balanced and realistic, and the disc gives good measure. The issue comes with complete texts in German only. This will rob those whose command of the language is less than idiomatic of the appreciation of the many subtle points that the singer makes. These translations are readily available elsewhere. For some obscure reason the printing of Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
omits the quotation marks around the words of the girl and her dead soldier lover, which are duly given where required elsewhere. Otherwise the booklet notes – including an interesting personal note by the singer, a short essay on the songs themselves by Constantin Floros and biographies of singer and pianist – are entirely in English.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: Rückert Lieder