Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Das irdische Leben [3:00]
Lob des hohen Verstandes [2:22]
Der Schildwache Nachtlied [5:29]
Wer hat dies Liedlein gedacht? [2:07]
Verlor’ne Müh [2:28]
Der Tambourg’sell [5:08]
Trost im Unglück [2:23]
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen [5:53]
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [4:07]
Lied des Verfolgten im Turm [3:49]
Maureen Forrester (contralto); Heinz Rehfuss (bass-baritone)
Orchestra of the Vienna Festival/Felix Prohaska
rec. 27, 28, 31 May, 1 June 1963, Grosse Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
VANGUARD CLASSICS OVC4045 [52:25]
Mahler’s ‘Wunderhorn’ settings, though made early in his career, are of enormous importance in his output. Complete songs are to be found in the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (‘Urlicht’ and ‘St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes’, the latter rendered into an orchestral scherzo), the Third Symphony (‘Bimm, Bamm’), and the Fourth Symphony (‘Das himmlische Leben’), while there is an explicit reference to ‘Lob des hohen Verstanden’ at the beginning of the finale of the Fifth Symphony. That poem describes a song contest between nightingale and cuckoo, with a donkey as the adjudicator — we’ve all met a few of those — and Mahler was indulging in a bit of self-parody as he embarked on what seems to be, at first, a relatively academic fugue, presumably aimed at those with long ears.
The poems that Mahler put to music are essentially ‘folk poetry’, and all are delightful, telling humorous or touching stories. Mahler set them with great imagination, using the orchestra with consummate skill to colour and characterise each number. The singers on this disc were both outstanding artists, and, supported most sensitively by Prohaska and his orchestra, they bring out fully the often powerful emotions expressed.
There is another ‘classic’ recording of these songs from the 1960s, with Janet Baker and Geraint Evans as soloists, and Wyn Morris conducting the LPO (on IMP Classics), and it is very interesting to compare the two. I made it pretty much a ‘tie’; there’s little to choose between the orchestras, though the warmth of the Vienna sound is so seductive. Very fine though Maureen Forrester is, some of Baker’s performances are amongst the finest she ever committed to disc. In every one of her tracks, there are things of such beauty as to take the breath away. At this point, her vocal equipment was at its height of perfection, and the higher phrases in the songs show no sign of strain, with a velvety quality that is unique.
The two basses are closely matched; Geraint Evans doesn’t have the lieder singer’s subtlety that Rehfuss is able to call upon in the more lyrical songs. The latter gives a deeply moving performance of the ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ – ‘Song of the Prisoner in the Tower’, which Evans’s dark, heavy voice cannot match. On the other hand, Evans gives a rollicking version of ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, which is one of the best I’ve heard.
I mustn’t risk undervaluing Forrester; she was a truly great singer, and her readings have a dignity and eloquence which is to be treasured. On the CD’s final track she sings ‘Urlicht’, the song from the Second Symphony, which Baker does not include. Forrester gives an exquisite performance; and it came as a strange relief not to have the song followed by the apocalyptic explosion which succeeds it in the symphony.
This recording dates back to 1963, but it has ‘scrubbed up’ superbly. However, the presentation is sloppy; though Heinz Rehfuss’s dates are given in full, Maureen Forrester’s are not; she died in 2010. I realise this is a re-issue, but are recording companies so strapped for cash that they can’t afford to make small, respectful adjustments of this kind? Furthermore, one of Forrester’s tracks is wrongly ascribed to Rehfuss (‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’); and the orchestra is described as the ‘Vienna Symphony’ on the front cover of the booklet, and as the ‘Orchestra of the Vienna Festival’ on the rear of the case. Maybe they are one and the same, but nonetheless …
These gripes apart, this is a very fine recording. Admittedly, at under 53 minutes, it doesn’t appear to represent the last word in value for money; but I’m not sure you can measure things that way, can you?