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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder, song cycle (1901/04) [29.15]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung, tone poem, Op. 24 (1888/89) [30.11]
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano), Münchner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 17 February 1979 (Strauss), 30 June 1983 (Mahler); Herkulessaal, Munich German text provided – no English translation

These glorious accounts of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung from the radio archives of the Münchner Philharmoniker are given by two master interpreters of their craft: the legendary Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996), who conducts both works, and mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender (b. 1939), the soloist in Mahler’s orchestral song cycle.

A native of Moldova in North Eastern Romania, Sergiu Celibidache’s rise to prominence as a conductor at the age of 33 was a meteoric one; probably unrivalled in living memory. Plucked out of the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin, where he was studying, without any real preparation or settling-in period Celibidache was thrust into the limelight conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in concert. Celibidache was to conduct virtually all of the Berliner Philharmoniker concerts until the return of Furtwängler (who was undergoing denazification) in May 1947, when they effectively shared the post of chief conductor. After Furtwängler’s death the self-governing Berliner Philharmoniker didn’t appoint Celibidache as their chief conductor in 1955, they appointed the commercially-aware Herbert von Karajan. As one might imagine, being overlooked by the Berlin players devastated Celibidache, yet he progressively regained motivation and conducted many renowned orchestras, serving as music director of the Münchner Philharmoniker between 1979–1996.

A perfectionist by nature, Celibidache, who conducted without a score, became obsessive about preparing his players, increasingly requesting as many rehearsals as he could get away with. After the prohibitions of the of Nazi era, Celibidache resurrected music by banned composers such as Mendelssohn, Hindemith and Debussy in his programmes. He deliberately expanded the repertoire of the German orchestras and pleased the occupying powers in Berlin, Munich and other German cities by programming American, Russian, French and British music. Celibidache was renowned for avoiding making studio recordings. However, as he worked widely with radio orchestras there are extensive recorded documents of his live performances. So whenever you hear Celibidache conduct, it is probably a recording of an archived radio broadcast. There is a note in the booklet of this Münchner Philharmoniker own label release explaining that Celibidache’s family “has decided to release a number of selected and particularly valuable archival recordings as a precious memento of a great conductor and of his unique work with the Münchner Philharmoniker.”

The renowned German mezzo-soprano, now stage director, Brigitte Fassbaender, was a major figure in international opera houses and concert halls. In 1961, she joined the ensemble of the Bayerische Staatsoper, progressing to perform at the most celebrated opera houses in the world, including Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Wiener Staatsoper, New York Metropolitan Opera and the Opéra National de Paris. During a singing career which spanned from the early 1960s to the mid-1990, her Octavian in Rosenkavalier and Prince Orlofsky in Fledermaus were incomparable. She was also leading Lieder performer. In 2017, she was the recipient of the ECHO Klassik in the Lifetime Achievement category awarded for her career as singer, director, author and educator. I interviewed her a few years ago in Munich.

Mahler composed his orchestral song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs for dead children) in 1901/04 to texts by Friedrich Rückert. Following the deaths of two of his children, Rückert wrote over four hundred poems collectively titled Kindertotenlieder. Mahler’s wife Alma strongly expressed her discomfort with the subject matter, as if setting the texts would somehow tempt fate. Subsequently, after composing Kindertotenlieder Mahler and Alma became haunted by the death of their own child Maria in 1907. Given the sombre nature of the inspiration, it is not surprising that an achingly poignant mood cloaks these songs. At times I can hear shades of the exotic sound world that Mahler was to firmly establish a few years later in Das Lied von der Erde.

In Kindertotenlieder, recorded live for radio in 1983, Brigitte Fassbaender communicates a breathtaking feeling for Rückert’s text. The aching sorrow and sense of total despair produced by her implacably expressive vocal timbre is almost too sad to bear. It is striking how the Berlin-born mezzo-soprano is able to deepen and darken her tone to remarkable effect. With highly sensitive support from the Münchner Philharmoniker under Celibidache, it’s a penetrating and affecting performance that I would confidently describe as a great one.

One of Fassbaender’s best known recordings is her penetratingly intense 1988/89 studio account of Kindertotenlieder made in Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Riccardo Chailly on EMI. Fassbaender has released another splendid account of the score with the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Klaus Tennstedt, which she recorded live for radio in 1980 at Kieler Schloss, Kiel on Profil. Another classic account is the 1967/69 Abbey Road, London recording performed by Dame Janet Baker with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli on EMI. Overall the present issue is a quite outstanding live performance of Kindertotenlieder by Fassbaender from Herkulessaal, Munich that matches, maybe even exceeds, the intensity of her gripping 1988/89 Berlin account under Riccardo Chailly on EMI.

Richard Strauss wrote the tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) in 1888/89. It was an attempt to depict the last moments of an artist on his deathbed, reflecting on his youth. Strauss was unable to draw upon personal experience of serious illness and used his imagination. At the behest of Strauss, his friend Alexander Ritter wrote an interpretation of Tod und Verklärung in a poem; in effect a programme note which Strauss later appended to the score.

In this radio recording from 1979, Celibidache’s interpretation feels judiciously paced and in a moving, often dramatic performance he achieves a remarkable internal balance of orchestral sound. Striking, too, is the glorious wash of colour his Munich players achieve. Rich and sonorous, the basses and cellos which underpin the score are splendidly caught, and the burnished brass and radiant high strings all strongly impress. The orchestral climax at 27.33 Makes a genuine impact, followed by the yearned-for transfiguration "from the infinite reaches of heaven."

My first-choice recommendation for Tod und Verklärung is the penetrating 1982 Berlin account by Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan. I also admire his earlier 1972/73 Berlin account with the same forces, both on Deutsche Grammophon. Although Karajan holds sway, I can’t easily dismiss the 1970 Dresden Lukaskirche recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe on EMI Classics or the live 1972 account from Salzburg Festival with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon. Of the newer recordings, there is the enthralling live 2012 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh account by Manfred Honeck with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Reference Recordings. Another engaging recording is the live 2014, Herkulessaal, Munich account from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons on BR Klassik.

The sound quality of these live Münchner Philharmoniker accounts is impressive in its clarity and balance. There is little extraneous noise and audience applause has been retained with separate track numbers. The booklet essays, ‘Endangered idyll’ (Mahler) by Tobias Niederschlag and ‘Self-realization in the afterlife’ (Strauss) by Hans Köhler, are interesting reads and highly informative too. The label has provided the sung German text for Kindertotenlieder in the booklet but, most disappointingly, there is no English translation.

Released on MPHIL, the Münchner Philharmoniker’s own label, this is one of the finest recordings I have heard of these Mahler and Richard Strauss masterworks, with Sergiu Celibidache and mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender in remarkable form. I loved every single second of this album, which is undoubtedly an early contender for one of my 2018 Records of the Year.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore (Recording of the Month)  ~ Dan Morgan



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