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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
A Life in Songs
see end of review for track listing
Bernarda Fink (mezzo)
Anthony Spiri, piano (tracks 1-3, 9, 15, 17-18)
Gustav Mahler Ensemble (tracks 4-7)
Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich/Andrés Orozco-Estrada (tracks 8, 10-14, 16, 19)
rec. April 2013 Telex Studio, Berlin, Germany, May 2013, Auditorium Grafenegg, Austria
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902173 [77:53]

The Argentine mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink has a long Mahler pedigree. In 2011 I fondly recall attending a stunning Munich concert of Mahler’s Resurrection with Fink partnering soprano Anja Harteros with the Symphonieorchesters des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons.
 
There's a fascinating combination of the familiar and the less familiar here. Mahler’s lieder, all sung by Fink, are approached in three different ways. There are eight including two of the early Drei Frühe Lieder and two of the five Rückert Lieder performed with piano accompaniment by Anthony Spiri. Next the set of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) played by the Gustav Mahler-Ensemble using Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble transcription. In addition the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), one of the set Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) and two of the Rückert-Lieder are performed by the Tonkünstler-Orchesters Niederösterreich.
 
I admire Bernarda Fink’s assurance, her excellent diction and smooth, fluid control. One senses Fink’s complete engagement with the meaning and mood of the texts. In splendid form throughout the Gustav Mahler Ensemble and the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich under Andrés Orozco-Estrada prove unfailingly sympathetic partners. Winterlied from the Drei Frühe Lieder is gloriously sung with aching beauty: the subject longs for the long winter evenings with his love by a roaring fire. From Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, is Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my sweetheart is married) with Fink communicating intense sorrow, feeling wretched at seeing another married one’s love. She also shines in Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The two blue eyes of my beloved) giving a deeply moving access to pain and anguish before the mood alters to one of resignation. Conveying the ominous shadow of war, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen from Des Knaben Wunderhorn sees the soldier depart his sweetheart. The collaboration of fluid-toned Fink with Orozco-Estrada and his players ensures the mood soon resolves into dark despair.
 
In the Kindertotenlieder cycle the aching sadness and sense of despair produced by Fink’s unerringly expressive vocal is almost too sad to bear. Here I was struck be how the mezzo can deepen and darken her tone. My favourite of all Mahler lieder is the Rückert-Lieder, especially in its orchestral version. Quite why only four of the set of five are included here is baffling as is the inexplicable choice to mix two for piano and two for orchestra. In the right hands the Rückert-Lieder can prove marvellously affecting and here Fink creates a most haunting tenderness. One of the finest orchestral songs ever written Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen receives a deeply heartfelt rendition.
 
This release was recorded at two locations: the Telex Studio, Berlin and the Auditorium Grafenegg, Austria. The engineers have provided satisfying sound quality being clear and especially well balanced. Congratulations are also in order for a booklet providing full German texts with English translations.
 
Not surprisingly the competition among recordings of Mahler’s lieder is extremely fierce. So far as the female voice is concerned; there are a number of excellent accounts available from which I have selected several that I believe indispensable. In the orchestral cycles: Kindertotenlieder, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert-Lieder I am a long-time admirer of two stand-out recordings. There are the 1988/89 Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin accounts from Brigitte Fassbaender with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Riccardo Chailly on EMI. Also included on my Fassbaender/Chailly double set is Mahler’s cantata Das klagende Lied. Next there's the remarkable 1967/69 Abbey Road, London recordings by Janet Baker with the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli - again on EMI. More recently there is a quite stunning live recording of the five Rückert Lieder from Magdalena Kožená. This was produced in 2012 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. It's both compelling and enchanting. Kožená is accompanied by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. It's coupled with Dvořák's Biblical Songs and Ravel's Shéhérazade on Deutsche Grammophon.

In the accounts with piano accompaniment there is a wealth of choice. Highly desirable are the two recital recordings produced by the Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager and her accompanist Helmut Deutsch. On the Quinton label there is the 2009 (Raiding, Austria) all-Mahler recording of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the five Rückert-Lieder, four from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and three from the Lieder und Gesänge. There is also Kirchschlager’s debut release containing all fourteen of the Lieder und Gesänge coupled with songs from Korngold and Alma Mahler. These were recorded by Sony in 1996 at Eisenstadt, Austria. Next there's a splendid debut recital from Katarina Karnéus, the Swedish mezzo, and pianist Roger Vignoles. These were recorded in 1998 at Highgate, London. Karnéus sings five songs from the Lieder und Gesänge and four of the Rückert-Lieder coupled with songs by Richard Strauss and Joseph Marx on EMI. Another beautifully sung recital disc worthy of consideration is from German soprano Ruth Ziesak and pianist Gerold Huber. The recording was made in 2011 in Zurich and issued by Capriccio. For that recital Ziesak selected eight songs from the Lieder und Gesänge and coupled them with examples by Zemlinsky and Alma Mahler.
 
If I had to choose just one Mahler recital disc it would unquestionably be the remarkable performance of fifteen Lieder from Christianne Stotijn, with her accompanist Julius Drake. Recorded in 2006 at Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey the Onyx release titled Urlicht comprises two works from the Lieder und Gesänge collection, also eleven works from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and two of the Rückert-Lieder. Stotijn’s natural warmth and mellow timbre are combined with an innate feeling for the texts — essential listening. A few years later Stotijn released another recital disc, recorded in 2011 at Neumarkt, Bavaria. It includes a striking version of the song-cycle Kindertotenlieder for voice and piano this time accompanied by Joseph Breinl. That Onyx release is coupled with five lieder by Pfitzner and seven by Richard Strauss.
 
I am delighted by the Mahler Lieder on this Harmonia Mundi release but remain unenthused by the idea of mixing the accompaniment between piano, chamber ensemble and symphony orchestra. Nevertheless the singing from such an experienced and unfailing Mahler performer is out of the top-drawer. Seasoned Mahler enthusiasts will I’m sure relish this release but it’s not the best place for Mahler novices to start.
 
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Rückert-Lieder
 
Track listing
1. Im Lenz (1880) [2:50]
2. Winterlied (1880) [3:25]
3. Ablösung im Sommer (1884/90) [1:59]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884/85)
4. I. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht [3:59]
5. II. Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld [3:49]
6. III. Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer [3:07]
7. IV. Die zwei blauen Augen [5:00]
from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
8. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (1898) [6:49]
9. Nicht wiedersehen! (1887/90) [4:36]
Kindertotenlieder (1901/04):
10. I. Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn [5:48]
11. II. Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen [4:50]
12. III. Wenn dein Mütterlein [4:44]
13. IV. Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen [2:45]
14. V. In diesem Wetter [6:28]
15. Frühlingsmorgen (1880/83) [1:56]
from Rückert-Lieder (1901/02):
16. Ich atmet’ einen linden [2:26]
17. Duft, Liebst du um Schönheit [2:10]
18. Um Mitternacht [5:19]
19. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen [5:48]