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New Mahler Song Recordings

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Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Adagio from Symphony No. 10, M. Kožená, C. Gerhaher, Cleveland Orchestra, P. Boulez

(released on October 5, 2010)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 9060

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Mahler, Lieder, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber

(released on November 17, 2009)
Sony/RCA 88697567732 | 75'52"

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Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen / Rückert-Lieder / Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, S. Graham, T. Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, M. Tilson Thomas

(released on September 14, 2010)
SFS 821936-0036-2 | 64'57"

Online scores:
Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn | Rückert-Lieder | Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

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D. Mitchell, Gustav Mahler:
The Wunderhorn Years
Like most German composers of the nineteenth century, Gustav Mahler was taken with the distilled folk poetry of the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. When something that is unlearned and orally transmitted is written down by men of letters, the temptation is strong to improve and refine it, and the temptation proved too much for the transcribers of this poetry as it did for those who notated Appalachian folk song, like John Jacob Niles. Only the phonograph cylinder, such as used by Béla Bartók to record folk songs in peasant villages, does not embellish -- although Bartók did note in his journals that sometimes he trusted his own transcriptions, made from memory or at first encounter with a singer, more than the phonograph cylinders, saying that sometimes a singer would alter what he had sung "in spite of himself," reacting to the formality of being recorded for posterity. Mahler, having obsessively set the Wunderhorn poems to music for much of his life as a composer, assembled twelve of them in a set, altered in some of its details over time, that is now often called Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn."

To hear how Pierre Boulez would conduct the songs of the Wunderhorn collection is enough recommendation perhaps for this new release coming up from Deutsche Grammophon. This is even more true of his incandescent reading of Mahler's draft of the Adagio movement of what would have been his tenth symphony. Boulez told Cleveland Plain Dealer critic Zachary Lewis that the piece has both a "dark side" and "a kind of child-like tempo, a remembrance to it": both come across in this performance. In his hands the Cleveland Orchestra sounds refined and folk-rowdy as need be in the songs, and certainly the portion of pieces given to German baritone Christian Gerhaher is engaging and gorgeously sung, almost recited.

Boulez follows the typical division of the songs for baritone and soprano voices, although Mahler notated the vocal part, marked simply as Voce, in treble clef without any other indication of the intended voice type, even in songs that are dialogues between man and woman. Magdalena Kožená, as much as I admire her in early music and in smaller-scale song repertory, does not have a voice opulent enough to match the orchestration Mahler created, sounding a little brittle and breathless in her songs, albeit with some lovely moments (like "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen"). Somewhat to my surprise, Zachary Lewis had completely the opposite reaction hearing one of these concerts live for the Plain Dealer. Given how many recordings clutter the field already, including some made in recent years, this live recording, complete with audience coughs and noisy page turns, does not rise to the top of the pile.

Gerhaher made one of the recent Mahler recordings that is truly indispensable, an exquisitely programmed selection of songs from the Wunderhorn settings and complete performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert-Lieder, the latter set in a different order than one usually hears. Judging by the performances and the insightful liner essay Gerhaher wrote, the German baritone has lived inside these songs and mines them for every gorgeous detail of diction, melodic lines, and vocal color. Even though some of these songs were conceived originally in orchestral versions, Gerhaher's gifted collaborator, pianist Gerold Huber, brings these versions with piano accompaniment to vivid life. Scholar Renate Hilmar-Voit, with baritone Thomas Hampson, edited Mahler's original piano accompaniments for the orchestral songs, which had been supplanted by piano reductions of the orchestrations. The documentary material does not indicate which version Huber is playing. The final song on this disc, the piano version of Urlicht, dropped from the Wunderhorn publication after it was incorporated into the second symphony, is a radiant marvel with baritone and the hushed whisper of the piano.

Following up on some thoughts on Michael Tilson Thomas's recording of Das Lied von der Erde, the San Francisco Symphony has come to the end of its Mahler cycle with a volume of orchestral songs. The two singers are known quantities, both American stars, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's shaded, honey-smooth rendition of the Rückert-Lieder serving as the high point. Tilson Thomas takes his time with the tempi and pays careful attention to all the details of the score, turning over every stone to squeeze out each song's emotional potential. The tone of these beautiful songs is refined, not to say overly polite, with only occasional details raising an eyebrow, like the near-crack of the sliding oboe d'amore and clarinets, marked Herunterziehen, in Um Mitternacht, for example. Thomas Hampson gives a somewhat bland performance of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which Gerhaher described as a sort of sequel that continues from the troubling conclusion of Schubert's Winterreise (made about a week after Graham's Rückert-Lieder, both in live concert at Davies Symphony Hall). Five songs selected, apparently at random as no other reason was given, from the Wunderhorn set were actually recorded in concerts given in 2007, again with Hampson. A gifted singer, Hampson tends to luxuriate in his sound too much, and his German pronunciation suffers in comparison with Gerhaher: note the sounds in "O Röschen rot," for example. This disc also ends with Urlicht sung by a baritone, but it is difficult not to prefer Gerhaher's version, even though it is only with piano.

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