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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das klagende Lied (1878-80, rev. 1899)
Simone Schneider (soprano); Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (mezzo-soprano); Torsten Kerl (tenor); Adrian Eröd (baritone); Oskar Stadler, Laurenz Ströbl (boy altos, Tölzer Knabenchor); Camil Diaz Degado (tenor); Juyoung Kim (bass)
Wiener Singakademie
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Cornelius Meister
rec. live, 1-2 December 2016, Konzerthaus, Vienna
German-English libretto
CAPRICCIO C5316 [60:24]

The first thing which strikes the listener in this live-composite recording of the young Mahler’s “Song of Lamentation” is the beauty of the orchestral playing, matched by superbly engineered sound. A further pleasant surprise is the sheer quality of both the solo and choral voices here, ideally suited to the episodic, indeed operatic nature of the work and which revitalise the opening movement. Mahler initially had ambitions to write an opera and considered turning this fairy tale into an opera to be entitled the same as the second movement, Der Spielmann.

The dramatic sweep of conductor Cormelius Meister’s direction gives greater coherence and urgency to the whole work – he shaves off some seven minutes compared with, for example, a previous recording by Tilson Thomas and is four minutes faster than Chailly – and makes the customary omission in performance of the first movement until the early 70’s all the more puzzling, as here it emerges as captivating. Obviously, any decision to follow later Mahler’s decision to drop Waldmarchen before the premiere, delayed until 1901, was based on the shared conviction that the work was better off without that potentially rambling first movement, but that removes the essential context of, and background to, the subsequent tragic events. You could not get better advocacy for its inclusion than Meister provides here. Unlike Bruckner, the composer with whom he is often paired and compared, Mahler was not a compulsive revisionist and here is confirmation that his first thoughts were best, despite his being only twenty and inexperienced. Although it was rejected by the Vienna Conservatory when he entered it for the Beethoven Prize in 1879, Mahler retained confidence in the work, hence his re-writing until he produced the1898 score – admittedly shorn of the Waldmarchen.

I borrow here, with due acknowledgement, the plot summary from a review of Rozhdestvensky’s live 1981 recording by my MWI colleague and Senior Editor John Quinn:

“The work is in three parts and, in brief, the first part, ‘Waldmärchen’ (Forest Legend), is the scene-setter, telling of two brothers who set out into the forest to find a flower; the queen has promised to marry whoever can find and bring her a specimen of the flower. The younger brother finds the flower but is murdered by his sibling who steals the flower and sets off to claim the queen. In Part Two, ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel), the minstrel of the title comes across a bone from the murdered young man and makes it into a flute which, when played, tells the story of the murder. In Part Three, ‘Hochzeitstücke’ (Wedding Piece), we see the wedding of the elder brother and the queen but the minstrel spoils the party by arriving and playing his flute. When the brother accuses him of the murder the queen’s castle falls to the ground and no one lives happily ever after.”

Its scale, content and musical nature to some degree reminds me of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, especially when performed with the grandeur and conviction Meister displays here – yet Schoenberg’s -admittedly retrospective - epic was composed thirty years later. In essence the work is more of a choral symphony and is scored for an orchestra of Wagnerian proportions, including six harps as per Das Rheingold. The libretto for Das klagende Lied was written by the composer and based on German folk tales and elements from stories found in the Brothers Grimm; its mythical nature further cements its relationship to Wagner and early Schoenberg and it thus emerges as aspiring beyond being merely a cantata. Its high Romantic nature and innovative effects, such as the off-stage band, and the interweaving of eight different solo voices and chorus, all help to offset the possibility of a lack of variety in the pacing and mood of the predominantly melancholy and foreboding tale. The plethora and range of solo voices derives from the fact that Meister has opted to use a score combining the original scoring of Waldmarchen with the1898 revision of the second and third movements. Especially effective is the use of boy altos, whose dark, vibrato-free voices are oddly androgynous and eerie, but all the soloists are first rate: Torsten Kerl has a true Tristan tenor, powerful and attractive of timbre; soprano Simone Schneider reminds me of Deborah Voigt in her prime; mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner is rich and steady of voice, baritone Adrian Eröd is smooth and authoritative.

Further interest is provided by the frequent pre-echoes of themes and effects found in later works, especially the Resurrection Symphony.

As much as I quite enjoyed the Chailly recording with characterful soloists such as Brigitte Fassbaender, that is wholly eclipsed by this new recording. Meister’s soloists as a whole are superior, the recording is much more immediate, and he manages to bring far more punch and immediacy to proceedings, confirming the impression of blandness which, in my experience, is too often a characteristic of Chailly’s work.

There is absolutely no audience noise and applause has been cut. This magnificent recording breathes life into a work often dismissed as mere juvenilia when it is clearly so much more.

Ralph Moore



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