Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde; Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Lieder eines fahrenden; Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder
German sung texts and English translations included
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
SWR MUSIC SWR19042CD [17 CDs + 1 DVD: 994 mins]
Michael Gielen, who celebrated his 90th birthday in 2017, retired from conducting in 2014 for health reasons. His recordings with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, some of which were previously issued by Hänssler Classics, are now being issued in a series of boxed sets by SWR Music. This one, Volume 6 in the series, is especially attractive, containing as it does all his Mahler recordings made over period of 26 years with the SWR orchestra. Gielen was their Chief Conductor between 1986 and 1999 and then continued to appear with them as Conductor Laureate until 2014. Sadly, the orchestra no longer exists as a separate entity: for budgetary reasons Sudwestrundfunk decided to merge the orchestra with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the SWR Sinfonieorchester gave its final concert in July 2016.
Most of these Mahler recordings were originally issued by Hänssler Classics although two audio recordings, the Rückert Lieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are here released for the first time. They are both live recordings, captured at some of Gielen’s final concerts with the orchestra. The DVD of the Ninth Symphony is also new to the catalogue. This preserves a performance given during the period when the audio recording included in this box was being made under studio conditions. This is a virtually complete survey of Mahler’s orchestral music: only Das klagende Lied is missing.
I reviewed the original issue of the First symphony back in 2004 and I see I wasn’t too impressed, feeling that the performance, though admirably clear, lacked the sense of wildness that conductors such as Bernstein or Tennstedt would bring to the music. I was interested to read in the booklet that Gielen came late to this work, feeling that the finale was problematical. Re-hearing the performance now, I think I may have undervalued it first time round. Gielen achieves good tension in the opening and the main body of the first movement is bright-eyed and flows very well. The slow movement is taken a bit more swiftly than usual – in my experience – though the music never sounds rushed. This is a clear-eyed performance and I enjoyed it. Gielen adopts an almost identical pulse for the ‘Lindenbaum’ section and the music flows engagingly as a result. Gielen may have previously found the finale a problem movement but by the time he took up the symphony in 2002 he had clearly embraced the movement – and the symphony as a whole. There’s a lot of fiery and dramatic music-making here while the big D flat melody is unfolded with great sympathy.
The Second symphony fares very well. I found Gielen’s account of the first movement gripping. The second movement is stylishly delivered by his orchestra, whose sharply pointed playing also brings out the sardonic nature of the third movement. Cornelia Kallisch is a good, full-toned mezzo in ‘Urlicht’. Gielen’s handling of the vast fresco that constitutes the finale is really compelling. True, his may not be as full-blooded a reading as, say, Solti or Tennstedt provide but he certainly doesn’t short change the listener. He’s well served by his soloists and chorus: I have the impression that the chorus isn’t the biggest I’ve experienced on CD but they do well. This is a fine traversal of the symphony.
The Third is a live performance. Much of the huge first movement is paced in a quite deliberate fashion. Gielen’s performance is very focussed and strongly projected. In fact, the first six minutes or so are as darkly dramatic as I can recall hearing and that sets the tone for much of what is to follow, though the lighter episodes are done in a very pleasing way. This performance of the mighty movement may not be as flamboyant as, say, Bernstein’s but it’s seriously impressive. The third movement brings something of a novelty: the ‘posthorn’ solos are played on a genuine posthorn. The player, Frank Pulcini, plays with golden, gentle tone and makes a fine job of his solos. Factor in also Gielen’s very sympathetic handling of these passages and you have a lovely realisation of Mahler’s sweetly nostalgic music though saccharine is avoided. The orchestra plays magnificently throughout the symphony but nowhere more so than in the long Adagio finale. Here, Gielen’s conception is properly expansive but always very focussed. He seems to penetrate to the core of the music without any unwelcome excess of emotion. The last five or six minutes of this long movement have particular nobility.
There’s much to admire in the Fourth. The first movement is bright and fresh with the orchestra’s acute playing enhanced by a nice, airy recording. In the second movement Gielen is careful to observe the Ohne Hast tempo instruction, notwithstanding which the music still has plenty of life. Much of the third movement, with the obvious exception of the quick episodes, is spacious and easeful. In an excellent performance the strings deserve special credit. My reservation about this performance is one of personal taste. To my ears the tone of the American soprano, Christine Whittlesey is too bright, indeed verging on edgy. It seems from her biography that she is something of a specialist in contemporary music. Presumably Gielen wanted this particular sound but I’m afraid it’s not really to my taste.
Gielen makes a fine job of the Fifth. His way with the opening funeral march is powerful and direct. There’s weight and strength in his performance but emotions are properly controlled. Rightly, there’s a good deal of turbulence in the second movement but I admire also the way Gielen maintains tension in the more subdued passages, such as the lengthy recitative-like passage for cellos (4:28-5:31). The scherzo is very well done and idiomatic: it’s a pity the fine horn soloist isn’t named. The booklet includes comments on each symphony by the conductor and a propos the celebrated Adagietto he’s keen to stress that “the musical presentation has to be such, however, as to make it clear that this is an intermezzo.” He’s true to his word in a performance that plays for 8:30. The mood is affectionate but Gielen never wears his heart on his sleeve. The virtuoso rondo finale has high spirits a-plenty. I liked this account of the Fifth a lot.
The pacing of the first movement of the Sixth symphony seems to be a trap for the unwary. Barbirolli’s weary trudge strains my tolerance to breaking point, even though I’m generally an admirer of his Mahler. On the other hand, the admittedly electrifying pace adopted by Bernstein in his first recording – I’ve not heard his later version – is arguably a bit too much of a good thing. Gielen is quite deliberate and when I first heard the performance my initial reaction was that the basic tempo is too slow. However, I warmed to the approach over time, not least because it became clear that his approach to this movement is of a piece with what seems to be his dark vision of the score. In any event, any small reservations about tempo pale beside the clarity of thought – as well as of execution – that characterises not just this symphony but also the other contents of this boxed set. I’m rather more thoughtful about the Scherzo which is played in a very sturdy way. I came to the conclusion that the approach was just a bit too sturdy for my taste. You will have inferred, rightly, that Gielen plays the Scherzo second. I know that there’s now a considerable weight of scholarship which holds that the Andante moderato ought to come second but my own preference is for the order that Gielen adopts. I may not be wholly at ease with his account of the Scherzo but I have no reservations at all over the Andante moderato. Gielen judges this movement beautifully and his orchestra backs him up with wonderfully sympathetic playing. The vast finale is magnificent. Here, Gielen gets to the dark heart of the music in a performance of great intensity. Faced with one of the most challenging movements in the symphonic repertoire, his orchestra responds superbly – the horn section is outstanding – and by the end the listener is drained – or at least this listener was. This is a terrific performance of Mahler’s cathartic finale.
We don’t seem to have reviewed many of these performances in their Hänssler Classics incarnations but I see that my colleague Gwyn Parry-Jones admired Gielen’s recording of the Seventh (review), as did Tony Duggan in his survey of several recordings of the work. As it happens, I’ve heard Gielen previously in this score: Testament issued a live performance which he gave with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1994, the year after this SWR recording was made. I enjoyed that performance but my colleague Dan Morgan, who had the advantage of having heard the SWR recording, preferred it and now that I’ve heard the SWR performance I can see why. I’m sure greater familiarity with the SWR orchestra played a part. Gielen makes the substantial first movement very imposing, though that’s not to suggest there’s not good forward propulsion. There’s strength and purpose in this performance, culminating in a towering final climax. It’s all very impressive. He’s also very successful in the central triptych of nocturnal movements. Nachtmusik I is a spooky night march and listening to this performance you can sense that hobgoblins and other nocturnal creatures are abroad. The SWR orchestra offers excellent, pointed playing, etching in Mahler’s phantasmagorical colourings really well and with acute rhythmic sensibility. They also make the most of the myriad dynamic contrasts. The same comments apply to the delivery of the Scherzo. This is a very acutely observed performance and at times the tart sallies from wind and brass conjure up a vision of gargoyles. This is very characterful playing. So too, but in a different way, is Nachtmusik II. Here the playing – and Gielen’s view of the music – is warm and nostalgic but the nostalgia is never overdone. I was most interested to read the conductor’s view of the finale, which can be so problematical. He points out that “the reprises of the main ideas deteriorate again and again…there is a dismantling of this positivism in the sound [as the scoring becomes increasingly sparse].” Though the music seems festive, this comment – and other ideas that he expresses – suggest an underlying seriousness of purpose in Gielen’s approach. I think he holds the movement together very well and celebration is by no means banished – the conclusion, for example, is suitably riotous.
The Eighth strikes me as the musical equivalent of a game of two halves. The performance of Part I is cogent but it appears to lack the X factor. I don’t know how big a chorus the EuropaChorAkademie is but it seems to me to be a smaller choir than one is used to hearing in this work. This, I think, is a major reason why the performance lacks some impact. Gielen conducts very well and though he may not achieve the electricity of some conductors at ‘Accende’, for instance, the clarity he achieves in this passage is admirable. The concluding ‘Gloria Patri’ provides a strong finish, the solo sopranos imperious, but neither this section nor the movement as a whole has the sense of the music sweeping all before it that Solti for one provides. However, it’s worth preserving with the performance because Gielen’s account of Part II is much more successful, perhaps because the music is rather better suited to his objective approach to Mahler. The long orchestral opening is impressive: here Gielen brings notable clarity and focus to the music. Anthony Michaels-Moore and Peter Lika both give good accounts of their respective solos and subsequently the choirs of Angels sound suitably fresh and innocent. Glenn Winslade is excellent in both of his important solos. Typical of Gielen’s approach is the passage for strings, harmonium and harp that precedes ‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’. Not all conductors resist the temptation to milk this section but, unsurprisingly, Gielen avoids the trap, making the episode sound suitably chaste. Christiane Boesiger is a bit of a disappointment as Mater gloriosa; her solo is simply too ‘present’, though the recorded balance may be a factor. However, the choir’s hushed entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche’ is just right and in the closing peroration Gielen and his forces achieve the degree of weight and power that I found lacking in Part I
The recording of Das Lied von der Erde is rather odd in that the tenor songs were set down in 1992 while the remaining songs were not recorded until 2001, when a different venue was used. I wonder why that happened. I should say, though, that I detected no significant discrepancies in the recorded sound. It’s a great pleasure to hear Siegfried Jerusalem in the tenor songs. He has the necessary vocal heft, especially for ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ but he’s also capable of delicacy and he invests his other two songs with suitable lightness of touch. I presume that Cornelia Kallisch was a singer with whom Gielen enjoyed working because she appears in several of these recordings. I wouldn’t say that she is quite as individual as some of the singers I’ve heard in this work – Janet Baker, Brigitte Fassbaender and Christa Ludwig come readily to mind – but Miss Kallisch sings very well indeed. Her account of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ demonstrates lovely, controlled singing and there’s tenderness in ‘Von der Schönheit’. A performance of Das Lied von der Erde inevitably stands or falls by ‘Der Abschied’ which Kallisch and Gielen do very well indeed. Kallisch is expressive and suitably intense yet very controlled. Gielen, for his part, obtains excellent clarity of texture throughout and the SWR orchestra offers refined playing. The extended central orchestral interlude (15:09 – 20:54) is exceptionally well done. All in all, Kallisch and Gielen turn in a performance that compels attention.
The set contains two recordings of the Ninth. One is an audio recording made under studio conditions in 2003; the other is a video recording of a live performance which Gielen and the orchestra gave on one of the evenings during the studio sessions. To be honest, I’ve simply engaged in some sampling of the CD version. Unless you have your TV hooked up to your hi-fi (I don’t) you’ll get better sound from the CDs – though the DVD sound is much more than acceptable. Interpretatively, I don’t believe there are any significant differences; I’d be surprised if there were. I found the DVD an engrossing experience. Just recently, I was lauding Sir Simon Rattle for playing the Ninth with his violins divided left and right, something I’d never experienced in a live concert (review). Lo and behold, Gielen does the same thing. He places his cellos on the left of the first violins and the violas are seated between the cellos and the seconds. As I commented when reviewing the Rattle concert, the gains from divided violins are significant – and, of course, you’ll get the same experience on the CDs. It’s very interesting watching Gielen conduct. He’s not the most demonstrative of conductors when it comes to gestures but his direction is crystal clear. His traversal of the first movement is deeply impressive. He’s in evident command of the movement’s great span and his narrative of the music encompasses both the drama and the bittersweet lyricism of the score. The orchestra plays magnificently for him and I was completely drawn into the music.
For the Ländler movement Gielen adopts a very deliberate initial tempo but later he completely respects Mahler’s demands for a swifter pace. The performance is very characterful – there’s a distinct tang to the playing – and the rhythms are strong and precise. The Rondo-Burleske is tart and powerful in Gielen’s hands, the orchestra responding with terrific playing. The nostalgic central section is beautifully rendered. In the transition back to the Rondo Gielen mixes nostalgia and tension in just the right proportions and the Rondo reprise eventually becomes a seething maelstrom. The concluding Adagio is wonderfully eloquent. Throughout – or at least until the very slow closing pages – Gielen always maintains momentum while allowing Mahler’s aching lyricism fully to make its mark. The climax, when it arrives, is heartfelt, yet we glimpse Gielen looking calm, almost stoical: he’s letting the music speak for itself. From this point onwards especially, I noticed more use of string ‘slides’ than I’m accustomed to hearing: they work really well. The close is wonderful; the music is tenderly voiced and always superbly controlled. This is Mahler conducting of a very high order indeed. We read in the booklet that Gielen confided afterwards to a friend that this was one of the best concerts of his life. It has never been released before and we are indeed fortunate that it has been preserved in very good sound and vision. For me, this towering live performance of the Ninth is perhaps the peak of the whole set.
When it comes to the Tenth this set is rather unusual. Many distinguished Mahler conductors have either avoided the Tenth completely or have restricted themselves to playing the first movement. Other conductors – and their numbers are growing – have embraced one or other of the various performing versions of Mahler’s unfinished score with most opting for the version by Deryck Coke. I can’t readily think of a conductor who has started off by playing the first movement only but has subsequently “upgraded” to a performing version: Gielen did just that. Here we have his 1989 recording of the Adagio in the Edwin Ratz edition. Subsequently, however, he studied the Cooke performing version and was converted. He took up the Cooke score and this set includes his 2005 recording of that version.
Thank goodness Gielen was converted, for while his performance of the Ratz edition of the Adagio is still well worth hearing it is, in my view, trumped by his magnificent reading of the Cooke score, one of the finest accounts of it that I’ve heard. For one thing, the recorded sound is better in 2005 than in 1989, though the earlier version is perfectly satisfactory. In addition, it seems to me that Gielen is even more in command of the Adagio second time round, offering an even more nuanced reading. His 2005 performance of this movement is really searching and his orchestra follows his inspiration acutely. The first Scherzo is sharply etched and articulated with the trio material warmly phrased. The Purgatorio seems here to take us back to the Nachtmusik world of the Seventh. We hear a pithy performance and I especially admire the nimble woodwind
near the end. Gielen ensures that the second Scherzo is detailed and highly idiomatic. But it’s his account of the Finale, above all, that makes me so thankful that he became a Cooke convert. The opening is dark indeed, the drum strokes making a telling effect. Then that wonderful flute solo (from 2:27) comes as balm to the senses. As the movement progresses the quicker passages have all the vitality they need but it’s the slow music that really burns
itself into the memory. These slow episodes are beautifully played by the SWR orchestra and Gielen allows everything to unfold very naturally. I found this last movement deeply satisfying and the fact that Gielen chose to record the Cooke version allows us to observe an extra dimension to his symphony cycle.
Generously, the set also includes all Maher’s orchestral songs. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, previously unreleased, appears in a 2014 live recording. This, I presume, is Gielen’s last Mahler recording with the SWR orchestra, though I learned from the booklet that there’s a performance of the Sixth symphony which they gave at the Salzburg Festival in August 2013. Apparently, it’s hoped to release that performance separately and I hope those plans come to fruition. The Swedish baritone, Peter Mattei is the soloist here and he does very well. He has an excellent top register, which he uses to excellent effect in these songs, notably in the first and fourth songs. Cornelia Kallisch is heard in a 1998 account of Kindertotenlieder. Her voice is evenly produced and pleasing to hear. Her performance is very controlled, which is probably of a piece with Gielen’s view of the music – the orchestral accompaniment is consistently excellent. Kallisch brings emotional urgency to ‘In diesen Wetter’. This is the most deeply felt of her performances and Gielen ensures the darkness in the orchestration comes out. Elizabeth Kulman sings the Rückert Lieder and she does them very well. Particularly fine is the performance of ‘Um Mitternacht’ where excellent, intelligent singing is married to a marvellously detailed, dark accompaniment. Gielen paces ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ very sensibly: the tempo is sufficiently slow to allow the feeling in the music to register yet at the same time momentum is maintained. You won’t hear the daring expansiveness of Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli but, then, that is a very special, truly unique account (review). Kulman and Gielen adopt a more straightforward approach but I didn’t feel that the emotional side of the setting was underplayed, not least because Kulman’s sense of line is so good.
Like Das Lied von der Erde, the recording of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs is the product of more than one set of sessions. The baritone songs were recorded in two different locations in 2009 while the songs that involve the female singer, including the duets, were set down in 2011. One interesting feature is that Gielen plays the short ‘Blumine’ movement, discarded from the First symphony, as part of this Knaben Wunderhorn performance. I think that’s a really good idea. He inserts it after ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ and this positioning is very intelligent. ‘Blumine’ is not desert island Mahler as far as I’m concerned – it’s excision from the symphony was surely the correct decision – but here, in a nice performance, it provides much-needed contrast after Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s powerful performance of the young drummer boy’s doom-laden march to the scaffold. He makes a very fine contribution to this set of songs. For instance, he characterises ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ very well and he brings swagger and defiant bravado to ‘Revelge’. I don’t recall hearing previously the German soprano Christiane Iven. I liked her performances here. She’s charming in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’. For my taste, she’s much better suited to ‘Das himmlische Leben’ than was Christine Whittlesey in the Fourth symphony recording. Iven brings a warmth of tone which I infinitely prefer. I also like Miss Iven in ‘Urlicht’. Cornelia Kallisch sang this very well in the Second symphony but Iven brings greater eloquence. I wonder whether it was her influence or his own decision that led Gielen to take the first part of this song more broadly than he did 15 years earlier when recording the symphony? These are most enjoyable performances of this collection of orchestral Lieder.
Before summing up I should say a word about presentation. The booklet, in German and English, runs to some 150 pages and includes all sung texts plus short biographies of all the artists. There are useful notes on all the pieces and in the case of each of the symphonies these notes are supplemented by comments from Michael Gielen himself. I have to confess that I found the notes and commentaries a bit heavy going at times but perhaps this is down to the translation from the original German. Nonetheless, SWR Classic have not stinted on the documentation and for that they deserve thanks. The recordings were made over a period of some 26 years but I found the sound quality remarkably consistent and always very good.
I should say that prior to receiving this set I was insufficiently familiar with Michael Gielen’s work. I now realise that was a glaring omission on my part. I’ve come away from this set with a considerable respect for Gielen, both as a conductor tout court and as a Mahler interpreter in particular. Everything he does in this set is thoroughly musical, focuses the attention of the listener firmly on Mahler rather than on the conductor, and bespeaks a deep and serious knowledge of the composer’s music. Furthermore, the performances are steeped in Mahler style. His is not the only way to play these inexhaustible scores. Gielen doesn’t bring to the music the intensity of expression – or, indeed, the wilfulness – that you’ll find from conductors such as Bernstein, Mitropoulos, Solti or Tennstedt. His are more objective readings but there’s definitely a place for such an approach: Mahler’s music yields up its secrets in a variety of ways and admits of more than one approach. I wouldn’t want to be without the Mahler recordings of the four conductors I mentioned a moment ago, nor those of Abbado, Haitink, Horenstein or Walter. However, Gielen’s interpretations have made me listen to the music and engage with it in a different way and for that I’m very grateful. I find it interesting that these recordings were made over such a long span of time – much longer than one often finds in Mahler cycles. I think that Gielen’s extensive engagement over time with the music pays dividends. So, too, does the fact that Gielen was working with an orchestra who knew him well. The playing of the SWR orchestra is splendid throughout: what an act of vandalism it was when this orchestra was sacrificed on the altar of budgetary rectitude.
Normally, I wouldn’t recommend a single-conductor cycle of Mahler symphonies. There is so much in the music that no individual can hope to do every work equal justice. However, if you’re a seasoned Mahler collector I’d say that Gielen is very well worth hearing. If you’re less familiar with Mahler’s music then this relatively inexpensive set will provide an excellent and very reliable way of adding all his orchestral music to your collection.
I’m going to leave the last word to my colleague, Dan Morgan. When he heard I’d received this set for review Dan emailed me and said “As for the Gielen, I have them all and there's hardly a weak link anywhere.” He was right.
A fine Mahler collection from Michael Gielen with scarcely a weak link.
Symphony No 9 in D major [88:45]
rec. live 30 June 2003, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Symphony No 1 in D major [52:08]
rec. June 2002, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ [83:26]
Juliane Banse (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (alto)
rec. June 1996, Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Symphony No 3 in D minor [101:41]
Cornelia Kallisch (alto);
Frauenchor der EuropaChorAkademie; Freiburger Domsingknaben
rec. live 1 February 1997, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Symphony No 4 in G major [56:32]
Christine Whittlesey (soprano)
rec. February 1988, Karlsruhe Stadthalle Johannes-Brahms-Saal
Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor [68:56]
rec. December 2003, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Symphony No 6 in A minor [84:51]
rec. September 1999, Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden
Symphony No 7 in E minor [79:48]
rec. April 1993, Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Symphony No 8 in E flat major [83:40]
Alessandra Marc (soprano -Magna Peccatrix); Margaret Jane Wray (soprano – Una poenitentium); Christiane Boesiger (soprano – Mater gloriosa); Dagmar Peckova (alto – Mulier Samaritana); Eugenie Grünewald (alto – Maria Ægyptica); Glenn Winslade (tenor – Doctor Marianus); Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone – Pater ecstaticus); Peter Lika (bass- Pater profundus);
EuropaChorAkademie; Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw
rec. December 1998, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Symphony No 9 in D major [84:05]
rec. June/July 2003, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Symphony No 10 in F sharp major – Adagio (Ratz Edition) [22:13]
rec. November 1989, Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Symphony No 10 in F sharp major (Performing edition by Deryck Cooke) [77:06]
rec. March 2005, Freiburg Konzerthaus
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [16:25]
Peter Mattei (baritone)
rec. live 24 January 2014, Koblenz Rhein-Mosel-Halle
Cornelia Kallisch (alto)
rec. June 1998, Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden
Fünf Lieder nach Texten von Friedrich Rückert [18:46]
Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)
rec. May 2012,
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [75:24]
Christiane Iven (soprano); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
rec. January 2009 & March 2011 Freiburg Konzerthaus; March 2011, Gran Canaria, Auditorio Alfredo Kraus.
Das Lied von der Erde [63:33]
Cornelia Kallisch (alto); Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor)
rec. September 1992, Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden & November 2001, Freiburg Konzerthaus