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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das klagende Lied
Susan Dunn (soprano); Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano); Markus Baur (boy alto); Werner Hollweg (tenor); Andreas Schmidt (bass)
Städtischer Musikverein Düsseldorf
Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin/Riccardo Chailly
rec. March 1989, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. DDD
German text, English, French & Italian translations included
Presto CD
DECCA 425 719-2 [64:14]

Mahler composed Das klagende Lied between 1878 and 1880. Not only did he write the music, he also fashioned his own text, drawing on an old folk-tale. Though it’s a very early composition, it’s remarkably assured. As composer David Matthews says in his booklet essay, the cantata “presents us with the authentic Mahlerian sound, precisely imagined, masterfully instrumented”. There are thematic pre-echoes of the first two symphonies, which are fascinating to hear. More significantly, Mahler shows terrific confidence and imagination in the way he handles large forces – the opening few minutes of Part III, here thrillingly performed, being especially relevant to that judgement. The cantata is an amazingly precocious achievement for a composer who was in his late teens when he began work on the score and a newcomer to orchestral writing.

The tale that’s told in Das klagende Lied is a tragic one. Two brothers seek the hand of a queen. The elder brother kills his sibling and claims the queen as his bride. Later, a minstrel comes across one of the bones of the slain brother and fashions a flute from it. The minstrel duly turns up at the wedding banquet and plays the flute. The instrument, taking on a life of its own, tells the story of the murder, news which is greeted with horror by the assembled guests. The guests flee in terror as the queen’s castle falls to the ground. A graphic tale, then, which Mahler relates with vividly illustrative music.

Originally, Mahler cast the work in three parts: ‘Waldmärchen’ (Forest Legend); ‘Der Spielmann’ (The Minstrel); and ‘Hochzeitstück’ (Wedding Piece). Part I is the scene-setter, both narratively and musically. However, Mahler was disheartened by the work’s initial reception and he discarded ‘Waldmärchen’. Thereafter, on the occasions that the cantata was performed or recorded the revised bi-partite version was used. It was only in 1969 that the score of ‘Waldmärchen’ was rediscovered and Riccardo Chailly is one of several conductors who have recorded the original version. Personally, even though ‘Waldmärchen’ is a bit lengthy, I think the tri-partite score is the preferable option. Without it, the work begins in medias res, both dramatically and thematically.

This recording has a lot going for it. Chailly exerts a dramatic grip on the music and conducts very convincingly. He is well served by his soloists and the contribution of the Städtischer Musikverein Düsseldorf is terrific. The playing of the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin is just as impressive – the recording was made just after Chailly’s period as their Chief conductor came to an end, so conductor and orchestra knew each other well. Best of all, the Decca recording is splendid. Engineer Stanley Goodall captured the performance in vivid sound: the choir and orchestra, well balanced against each other, come across with presence and impact while the soloists are also well balanced. You can hear lots of detail so the originality of Maher’s scoring is readily apparent. In that respect the disc is preferable to the live Michael Gielen performance that I reviewed recently. Decca’s sound may be just over 30 years old but the recording carries its years lightly.

Can you sense a ‘but’? Well, maybe. A doubt arises in Part III, when the minstrel plays the flute the voice of the murdered brother is heard, telling of the fate he met at the hand of his sibling (‘Ach Spielmann, lieber Spielmann mein’). This is an alto solo and Chailly has it sung by Markus Baur, the boy alto (tr 3, 8:36). I’m not aware of any other recording on which this is done, nor, so far as I know, did Mahler authorise this in any way. I can only presume that Chailly wanted the specific youthful and innocent timbre of a boy’s voice, just as Leonard Bernstein used a treble to sing in the finale of Mahler’s Fourth in his DG recording of that symphony. Markus Baur sings clearly and well but there’s no question that he lacks the vocal resources, expressive intensity and sheer experience that Brigitte Fassbaender would have brought to the passage – or that Marjana Lipovšek contributes on the Gielen performance. The effect is interesting but, for me, it’s an opportunity missed when one has heard how Fassbaender sings elsewhere in the performance, including at ‘Was ist der König so stumm und bleich?’ earlier in this movement (4:36).

To be honest, had it not been for this one controversial interpretative decision, Chailly’s recording of Das klagende Lied might well have been a contender for first choice. Such are its qualities, both in terms of the performance and the recorded sound, that I’m sure I shall return to it in the future. I’d encourage Mahler collectors to hear it despite the use of a boy alto in what is, admittedly, a relatively short, if crucial, passage.

John Quinn

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