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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder [25:46]
Rückert-Lieder [18:57]
Das irdische Leben (Des Knaben Wunderhorn, 1899) [3:37]
Scheiden und Meiden (Lieder und Gesänge, 1892) [3:00]
Aus! Aus! (Lieder und Gesänge, 1892) [2:46]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Vier Lieder Op. 2 [12:23]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 25-28 August 2014, Saal 2 Funkhaus, Nalepastrasse, Berlin
ONYX 4146 [66:34]

This is special. Anne Schwanewilms is well known as a Strauss and Mahler singer, and her earlier Onyx disc of Mahler and Liszt songs was a distinctive success (review), and this is just as fine.

The Schoenberg 4 Songs Op.2, which open the disc, date from 1899, but next to the Wunderhorn songs Mahler published that year they sound as if they come from a different world. We are here on the cusp of an expressionism that will eventually lead beyond Mahler into a brave new musical territory. There could be no better introduction to that expressionist world for lovers of song, for Schwanewilms sounds entirely at home here. There is a piercing intensity at times, but the lovely voice never hardens when she increases the pressure on it to convey the hothouse emotional atmosphere of these poems.

The soprano herself wonders in the booklet note about “how to sing Kindertotenlieder without your voice choking up with anger and pain?” The expressiveness she finds actually follows well after the Schoenberg, as these songs on the deaths of children are also of course concerned with extreme states. Her identification with such states is remarkable, even alarming, and it is not a confortable listen when she really enters into the bleak nihilism of certain phrases, but neither did Mahler intend it to be. No one I can think of goes quite as far as Schwanewilms in facing up to the dark feelings here, and she has marvellous control of line at the slow tempi of these pieces.

The Rückert-Lieder are similarly characterised, and open with an especially beautiful phrase “Ich atmet’ einen linden duft ” (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’), which Schwanewilms floats exquisitely. In Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen she sounds suitably rapt and lost to the world, but still finds plenty of vocal colour within the sustained withdrawn mood of this great song. There is an especially treasurable final line, where she reaches a quietly ecstatic transcendence. In Um Mitternacht she builds gradually and inexorably to the final apotheosis, in full command of the low notes along the way, and rising to a powerful forte for the fanfare-announced climax on “Herr!” This is a real Strauss operatic soprano at work, lyrical and ingratiating much of the time, but dramatic when needed.

There are three extra Mahler songs, which are listed on the disc cover and even discussed in the booklet note (or the short part by Richard Stokes) as being from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, but only the first of them, Das irdische Leben was published in that collection. The other two are much earlier, coming from the songs of the1880’s which Mahler collected together and published in 1892 as Lieder und Gesänge. All are treated by the singer with the same care as the mature masterpieces in the later cycles. The sound is fine, and Martineau is a wonderfully supportive collaborator, so much so that I found myself wondering, somewhat heretically, that Mahler’s orchestration of these songs might even involve losses as well as gains. The booklet notes are by Drummond Bone - whom I thought was a Byron scholar and Master of Balliol College Oxford. If it is he, then he has another string to his bow, for they offer some interesting observations on the relation of music to text. Perhaps he should have written about the extra three Mahler songs as well, for he might have checked which collections they come from.

Most of this repertoire is more familiar in orchestral versions, and I know of no soprano and piano rival for this disc with exactly this programme. But even with the much-recorded two Mahler cycles there are surely still few of this quality.

Roy Westbrook



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