Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Classics: Remembering Maureen Forrester, Part 2: Mahler


A lot of Maureen Forrester's Mahler is actually available. An unfortunate exception is the RCA coupling of the Songs of a Wayfarer and Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children," the cycle based on poems by Friedrich Rückert) with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony. Happily, they're all available on YouTube, though unfortunately in mono. Here's the final song of the Kindertotenlieder. Even if you don't know the cycle, or the song, the situation should be clear enough, and you're bound to note the devastating switch from the minor to the major for the final stanza.
"In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus"
("In this weather, in this bluster")

In this weather, in this bluster,
never would I have sent the children out.
They were taken out.
I had nothing to say about it.

In this weather, in this storm,
never would I have sent the children out.
I would have been afraid that they would catch sick.
Those are now idle thoughts.

In this weather, in this horror,
never would I have sent the children out.
I worried they might die tomorrow.
That's now not to be worried about.

In this weather, in this bluster,
never would I have sent the children out.
They were taken out.
I had nothing to say about it.

In this weather, in this storm, in this bluster,
they're resting as if in their mother's house,
not frightened by any storm,
by God's hand protected.

by Ken

One immediately striking feature of Mahler's writing for the female voice is a clear preference for the lower types over the soprano. Christa Ludwig has explained that Mahler's songs were a treasure bequeathed to her by her mother, also a mezzo-soprano -- a legacy that had to be guarded closely during the Third Reich, when the music of the Jewish-born Mahler was taboo. Yet a precious gift it was. Ludwig and Mahler became one of the greatest of all matches of performer and composer. But Mahler's "low voice" songs are equally accessible to a true contralto, and if I had to choose between Christa Ludwig's Mahler -- of which we've heard quite a lot in our Mahler explorations -- and Maureen Forrester's, well, I simply couldn't.

One distinction I can make, though: While there are lots of excellent mezzo performances, including some that can be said to rival Ludwig's, beyond Forrester (1930-2010) the true-contralto option is hardly represented. There's the too-little-appreciated Lili Chookasian (born 1921, retired 1986), who recorded Das Lied von der Erde with Eugene Ormandy for Columbia and later, somewhat past her prime, with Walter Susskind for Vox. There's the fine Czech contralto Véra Soukupová. And that's about it.

(I guess I should make clear that I'm not a great fan of the English-style contralto, which tends to substitute hooting for the lower-range fullness and lushness we expect in a true contralto, and I'm afraid that includes the much-loved but to me hooty and flutter-toned Kathleen Ferrier, especially in Mahler. I will say, though, that I really like what Ferrier does in a miraculously preserved -- except for the first seven bars -- 1952 broadcast performance by John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra finally released in 2003,which also features tenor Richard Lewis sounding like I doubt you've ever heard him, in fact rather lovely -- I kid you not.)

I suppose we ought to provide some definition for "contralto." It's the deepest of the female vocal ranges, anchored in those rich vocal depths. Here's a commonsense way to distinguish it from the next-upward female voice type: If you have to wonder whether a voice is a contralto or a mezzo-soprano, odds are it's a mezzo-soprano.


In our numerous Mahler explorations to date (see the post listing), we've stuck mostly to the relatively early period; I don't think we've ventured beyond the Fourth Symphony (1900). This has seemed to me quite an enormous enough bite to try to chew. Now we're jumping ahead, jumping in fact right over the fullest expression of the composer's artistic self-confidence, the monumental Eighth Symphony with its philosophically triumphant conclusion drawn from Goethe's Faust.

After completing the Eighth Symphony, however, Mahler learned (in 1907) that he had a terminal heart condition, and the transformation in his artistic outlook was startling. In his new relationship to the finiteness as well as the preciousness of mortal existence, Mahler found in a copy he had been given of Hans Bethge's The Chinese Flute, translations (or more likely adaptations) of Chinese poems, both the inspiration and the actual texts for what became in all but name his ninth symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

The first, third, and fifth movements of Das Lied are set for tenor solo; the second, fourth, and sixth for alto (or alternatively for baritone, singing the music an octave lower -- an alternative that sounds interesting but in my experience doesn't work very well). That last movement, "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), is roughly equal in length to the first five movements combined, and has always been recognized as one of Mahler's supreme achievements. Even though he was by no means finished with his life or work (still to come were the whole of the sublime Ninth Symphony and the considerable work he achieved on the Tenth by his death in 1911), there's no question that this is in part Mahler's own farewell to the earth.

One of these days we'll talk more about and hear more of Das Lied, but for now, quite madly, we're just plunging into the half-hour expanse of "Der Abschied." Conveniently for our purposes, this CD issue of the Berlin tour performance by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, with Forrester and Richard Lewis (who seem to have been joined at the hip in this music), has track points that enable us to commit the appalling barbarity of splitting the thing apart and separately registering its component parts, which more or less correspond to stanzas.

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
vi. "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell")

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Live performance in Berlin, Apr. 21, 1967 (mono)

track 1, "Die Sonne scheidet hinter dem Gebirge"
[English translation by Deryck Cooke, © 1967]

The sun is going down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening is descending,
bringing its shadows, which are full of coolness.
O look! where like a silver bark afloat,
the moon through the blue lake of heaven soars upwards.
I sense the shivering of a delicate breeze
behind the dark fir trees.

There aren't many more beautiful moments in music than the refrain "O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt der Mond am blauen Himmelsee herauf" ("O see! Like a silver bark the moon soars over the blue heavenly lake"), at 2:48 of the Szell performance, and just about the same point in the Forrester-Reiner and Forrester-Walter below.

Let's continue now.

track 2, "Der Bach singt voller Wohllaut durch das Dunkel"
The brook sings, full of melody, through the darkness.
The flowers grow pale in the twilight.
The earth is breathing, full of rest and sleep;
all desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary mortals wend homewards,
so that, in sleep, forgotten joy
and youth they may learn anew.
The birds huddle silent on the branches.
The world is falling asleep!

track 3, "Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten"
It blows cool in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him, to take the last farewell.
I long, O my friend, to be by your side,
to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you lingering? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
on pathways that billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal life- and love-intoxicated world!

Orchestral interlude

After the magnificent orchestral interlude, when the soloist resumes her song we've actually switched to a second poem, by a different poet, which Mahler cunningly amalgamated with the first.

track 4, "Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk"
He alighted from his horse and handed him the drink
of farewell.
He asked him whither he was going,
and also why, why it had to be.
He spoke; his voice was veiled:
"You, my friend --
In this world fortune was not kind to me!
Whither I go? I go, I wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!

The dear earth everywhere
blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and eternally the distance shines bright and blue!
Eternally . . . eternally . . .


Having taken the movement apart, we surely need to put it back together. We're going to hear it now in two performances that are bound historically.

When Bruno Walter, who had conducted the premiere of Das Lied in November 1911, some six months after the composer's death, gave his last concert performances of the work, with the New York Philharmonic in April 1960, his soloists were Maureen Forrester and (who else?) Richard Lewis. Happily, Columbia chose to make a studio recording, but unfortunately Forrester and Lewis had just recorded Das Lied the previous November with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Here is the "Abschied" from that wonderful RCA recording.

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
vi. "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell")

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Nov. 7 and 9, 1959

So Walter and Columbia had to find replacement soloists for their recording. They did so so successfully, with the American mezzo Mildred Miller and the Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger, and Walter himself was in such inspired form, that the result was not just -- it seems to me (if not many other music lovers) -- one of the conductor's finest recordings but one of the most memorable recordings ever made. We do, however, have an aural record of the Forrester-Walter collaboration in Das Lied, from the radio broadcast. Here's that "Abschied."

Maureen Forrester, contralto; New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Music & Arts, recorded live in Carnegie Hall, Apr. 16, 1960 (mono)

MAHLER: Rückert Songs

In addition to the cycle of Kindertotenlieder poems (of which we heard the final one at the top of this post), Mahler set five other poems by Friedrich Rückert. We're going to hear the anxiety-ridden "At Midnight" and the famously valedictory "I have lost touch with the world."

v. "Um Mitternacht" ("At Midnight")
At midnight
I awoke
and looked up at the sky.
No star in the galaxy
smiled at me
at midnight.

At midnight
my thought went
out to the barriers of darkness.
No thought of light
brought me comfort
at midnight.

At midnight
I paid attention to
the beating of my heart;
a single pulse of pain
was roused
at midnight.

At midnight
I fought the battle,
o Mankind, of your sorrows;
I couldn't decide it
with my powers
at midnight.

At midnight
I gave my powers
into your hand.
Lord! Over death and life
you keep watch
at midnight.

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. DG, recorded Sept. 16, 1958

i. "Ich bin her Welt abhanden gekommen"
("I have lost touch with the world")

I have lost touch with the world,
with which I formerly wasted much time.
It has for so long heard nothing of me,
it may well think that I have died.

And for me it doesn't matter at all
if it takes me for dead.
I can't even say anything against it,
for really I am dead to the world.

I am dead to the worldly tumult,
and rest in a quiet place.
I live alone in my heaven,
in my loving, in my song.

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. DG, recorded Sept. 16, 1958

MAHLER: "Urlicht" (from Symphony No. 2)

The setting of "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"), from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), which Mahler incorporated into the Resurrection Symphony as fourth-movement lead-in to the heaven-storming finale, is one of the composer's most beautiful songs, and something of a Maureen Forrester signature piece. The first Forrester recording I'm aware of of "Urlicht" is the 1957 video version with Glenn Gould conducting (yes, conducting! and conducting left-handed!) that we saw way back when (It doesn't get more eloquent than Maureen Forrester singing Mahler's "Urlicht"). Her first commercial recording followed soon thereafter, when Bruno Walter chose her for his New York Philharmonic performances and studio recording of the Resurrection Symphony.
O rosebud red!
Man lies in the greatest need.
Man lies in the greatest anguish.
Far rather would I be in heaven.

Then I came to a broad path.
Then a little angel came and wanted to send me away.
But no! I didn't let myself be sent away.

I am from God, I want to return to God.
Dear God will give me a little light,
will light me all the way to eternal blessed life.
Maureen Forrester, contralto; New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Feb. 17-21, 1958

We heard Forrester's next-to-last recording of "Urlicht" (again as far as I'm aware) in our Forrester pre-preview last week. Now we're going to hear the last, made some 30 years after the TV performance with Gould, when rich-guy Resurrection aficionado Gilbert Kaplan made his second recording of the symphony. Note how much broader the pacing is than Walter's -- much harder for both the conductor and the soloist to sustain. It's tantalizing to imagine how the young Forrester would have risen to this challenge. Still, for a 57-year-old singer this seems to me a pretty astonishing piece of singing.

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Vienna Philharmonic, Gilbert Kaplan, cond. DG, recorded July 1987


Finally, we return to the world of the folk-poetry anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which provided Mahler with so much inspiration, of such varied sorts, in the early part of his career. First is a song we've heard a great deal of (and a performance we've heard too), "Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon." Then, finally, we hear one we haven't heard, a haunting specimen from Mahler's "military" group, "Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow," a mournfully appropriate parting glimpse of this special singer.

"Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt"
("Anthony of Padua's Fish Sermon")

Antonius, arriving for his sermon,
finds the church empty.
He goes to the rivers
and preaches to the fishes;

They slap their tails,
glistening in the sunshine.

The carp with roe
have all come here,
have their mouths wide open,
listening attentively.

No sermon ever
pleased the carp so.

Sharp-mouthed pike
that always fight
have hurriedly swum here
to hear the pious one;

No sermon ever
pleased the pike so.

Also those fantastic creatures
that are always fast,
the stockfish, I mean,
appear for the sermon;

No sermon ever
pleased the stockfish so.

Good eels and sturgens
that banquet so elegantly
even they took the trouble
to hear the sermon:

No sermon ever
pleased the eels so.

Crabs too, and turtles,
usually such slowpokes,
rise quickly from the bottom,
to hear this voice.

No sermon ever
pleased the crabs so.

Big fish, little fish,
noble fish, common fish,
all lift their heads
like sentient creatures:

At God's behest
they listen to the sermon.

The sermon having ended,
each turns himself around;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.

The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

The crabs still walk backwards,
the stockfish stay rotund,
the carps still stuff themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!

The sermon pleased.
They remain as always.

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Vienna Festival Orchestra, Felix Prohaska, cond. Vanguard, recorded May 27-June 1, 1963

"Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen"
("Where the beautiful trumpets blow")

"Who then is outside and who is knocking,
waking me so gently?"

"It is your heart's beloved,
and let me in with you!
Why should I stand here longer?

"I see daybreak rising,
daybreak, two bright stars.
I surely wish I were with my sweetheart!
With my sweetheart!"

The girl got up and let him in.
She also bids him welcome.

"Welcome, my dear boy!
You've been standing so long!"
And she gives him her snow-white hand.
In the distance the nightingale sang.
The girl began to weep.

"O do not weep, my beloved!
By year's end you will be my own.
My own you will certainly be,
as no other is on earth!
O love, on the green earth.
I go off to war on the green heath;
the green heath, it's so far!

"There where the beautiful trumpets blow,
there is my house of green turf."

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Vienna Festival Orchestra, Felix Prohaska, cond. Vanguard, recorded May 27-June 1, 1963

[Note: I have to say, I'm not thrilled with what I hear coming out of these audio tracks of the Forrester-Prohaska performances, which sound metallic and fake-echoey, certainly not what I recall from my exceedingly well-played LP. I'd like to think that this is a quirk of the processing chain I've subjected them to rather than (admittedly more likely) a lousy CD transfer -- not what you'd hope for one of the all-time great recordings.]


No music preview tonight, just a down payment on a remembrance of Maureen Forrester
"Urlicht" from Mahler's Resurrection Symphony (1982, cond. Slatkin) and Brahms's "Lullaby"

Preview: Maureen Forrester -- one of the least replaceable singers of my time
"Che farò senza Euridice" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Cleopatra's "Piangerò la mia sorte" from Handel's Julius Caesar, "Träume" from Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder, and "O foolish fay" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe

Remembering Maureen Forrester, Part 1: A bulwark of the baroque revival
Music by Handel (from Messiah, Serse, Samson, and Julius Caesar) and Bach (from the Christmas Oratorio and Cantata No. 79) -- plus (don't ask why) the last of Brahms's Four Serious Songs


The current list is here.

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At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks Keni.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

You're welcome, Bil!


At 9:39 AM, Anonymous robert dagg murphy said...

I hope your satisfied, now I'm hooked on Mahler not to mention contraltos. I found the symphonies a little long but presented in shorter segments the music is captivating. The mid range voice has such a rich quality I am modifying my quest for the high notes. The viola pieces a while back fit nicely with my new appreciation of the mid range.

Maureen Forrester will be greatly missed how lucky we are to have these great recordings and the inter net to share them.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Robert! The viola is absolutely an appropriate reference point for the contralto voice -- they can't ever match the virtuosity and firepower of their higher, showier kin, violins and sopranos. But they can given us a richness and soulfulness all their own.



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