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Mahler kindertotenlieder 90822316
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Auf jenen Höh’n
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder (1901/1904)
Frank Martin (1890-1974)
Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann (1943)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Vier ernste Gesänge (1896)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), Hendrik Heilmann (piano)
rec. 2021, Konzerthaus, Der Abtei, Marienmünster, Germany
MDG 908 2231-6 SACD [62]

Of the three works recorded here, Mahler’s cycle is far better known in its orchestral guise. Martin’s work was composed for baritone and piano, and orchestrated later. The Brahms songs exist only in the voice and piano form.

Two things struck me as I listened to the opening of Kindertotenlieder. The performance was very slow; and the piano version revealed the extreme sparseness of Mahler’s textures. The first turned out to be an illusion. Bryn Terfel with Giuseppe Sinopoli (on DG), a favourite interpretation, takes a few seconds more than the first song here; and the incomparable Janet Baker with John Barbirolli (on Warner) clocks in at more or less the same time. Otherwise, Kindertotenlieder with piano accompaniment: does it work? Very little is missing in the piano part, though the glockenspiel’s high Ds in the first song are present at the beginning and – crucially – at the end, but absent in the middle. Similar observations can be made in the other songs. As to whether it works, the reply is mixed.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a fine singer. Tuning is impeccable, and his command of line is most musical. There are moments of slightly effortful singing in some of the higher passages of Kindertotenlieder, and listeners might wish for greater observance of piano and pianissimo markings. This is only intermittently troubling, though I do miss such moments as the pp subito on the final word, ‘Sterne’, of the second song. I also miss the horns in the fourth song; their presence adds warmth to a rare major key passage. And the piano cannot reproduce, in the closing bars of that same song, the downward, Mahlerian violin glissando that adds so much to the feeling the song engenders.

Hendrik Heilmann is a pianist who breathes and phrases with the singer as the finest accompanists must do. If there are many points throughout the work, and indeed throughout the programme, where his sensitivity strikes the listener, his way with the closing ‘lullaby’ is quite outstanding. The moment when the horn takes over after the singer’s final note, and the presence in that passage of the celesta… these are, to this listener, grievous losses. But it is impossible to imagine how another pianist might make a better case for this music with piano accompaniment. Müller-Brachmann, too, is at his best here. The sensitive use of the head voice makes one wish he had employed it more frequently earlier in the cycle.

You will be disappointed if you were troubled by the subject matter of Kindertotenlieder and hoped for relief in the following work. The texts that comprise Frank Martin’s short cycle were taken from the play Jedermann (Everyman) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss’s trusted librettist. The eponymous hero, embarking on his final journey, is accompanied by Death himself. He has amassed success and wealth, but good deeds, as he tells us in the fifth monologue, have been rare. How can such a person confront his imminent end? In this remarkable work, Frank Martin, whose music appears to be scandalously neglected, employs a musical language verging on expressionism, with a combination of diatonic harmony and harsh, chromatic dissonance. I have never seen the score, and sometimes have difficulty finding common ground between the vocal and the instrumental line. The orchestral version rather tempers the unrelenting severity of the accompaniment. As sung by the great José Van Dam (on Apex), the work comes over as more reflective, less anguished. Van Dam is incapable of singing an unpleasant note, but I suspect that, in this case, Müller-Brachmann comes closer to the composer’s intentions. Either way, it is a shocking work in an enthralling performance. The closing major chord brings a trace of solace that seems justified yet hard won.

Brahms composed the Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) as he was confronted with the death of several of his valued friends and associates. Clara Schumann, gravely ill, died shortly after the songs were completed. Death is, indeed, the subject of all four songs, whose texts are drawn from the Bible. Sombre and bitter they undoubtedly are, but the composer chose texts which allowed him to introduce elements of comfort, even of consolation. The fourth song, which sets the words of St Paul so familiar from wedding services, allows another major key ending. The Saint entreats us to practise faith, hope and love – this last translated as ‘charity’ in the booklet – of which the greatest is love.

I have long admired the performance of these songs by Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen (on DG). Quasthoff is a deeply thoughtful singer, and comparing his performance with this new one was instructive. Müller-Brachmann’s voice has something of a harder edge to it than Quasthoff’s, but it is no less beautiful. It is also, arguably, as in the previous work, better suited to this particular repertoire. He takes a little more time over each of the four songs than does Quasthoff. Rather to my surprise, he also finds more mystery and grim acceptance in the middle section of the second song, where we learn that the dead are better off even than those yet to be born, whom the evil of the world still awaits. Similarly, in the third song, which speaks of death as a deliverance from pain and suffering, Müller-Brachmann, at a slower tempo and a greater emphasis on quiet singing, finds more tenderness than Quasthoff. These are, indeed, exceptionally satisfying performances of all four songs by these two splendid artists.

William Hedley

Published: October 25, 2022

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