Friday, January 29, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: Two gems from Mahler's early Wunderhorn settings

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Baritone Bo Skovhus sings Mahler's "Ablösung im Sommer" in composer Luciano Berio's orchestral version, with Jonathan Nott conducting the Bamberg Symphony, in Cologne, 2007.
"Ablösung im Sommer"
("Replacement in Summer")

[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

Cuckoo has fallen to its death,
From a green willow!
Cuckoo is dead!
Has fallen to its death!

Who then, all summer long,
Will while away the time?

Hey! Mistress Nightingale will do that!
She sits on a green twig!
Small, fine nightingale,
The dear, sweet nightingale!
She sings and jumps, is always happy,
When other birds are silent!

We're waiting for Mistress Nightingale,
Who lives in the green hedge,
And if Cuckoo is done with,
Then she'll begin to pulse.

by Ken

I could go on for many months of Sundays with Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), but for now I think we'll continue last week's themes just this one more week.

We're still poking around the Wunderhorn world of Mahler, which is to say the period roughly from 1887 to 1901, during which the composer set (I think I've got the number right) 24 of the "old German songs" gathered -- and no doubt rewritten, or even written -- by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in the three-volume collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn). As I've noted, the subject matter in this material is so bewilderingly various that it's impossible to "type" what Mahler found here. Tonight we're listening to two of his nine early, unquestionably more naive Wunderhorn settings -- with a somewhat hidden ulterior motive.

The little ditty "Ablösung im Sommer" unquestionably represents the lighter side of Mahler, though you'll note that the actual subject matter is the death of one poor bird and its all-too-prompt replacement as singing companion. (Nothing is simple in Mahler!) For the record Mahler left the nine early Wunderhorn settings with piano-only accompaniments, although it isn't absolutely, strictly true to say that he never orchestrated "Ablösung im Sommer." Naturally other, less intrepid souls stepped into the breach, and among our performances we hear two different orchestrations of this song. (Which nevertheless sound surprisingly similar. Hmm.)

"Ablösung im Sommer"
[scroll up for English translation]

Diana Damrau, soprano; Stephan Matthias Lademann, piano. Telos Music Vocal, recorded 2003

Anny Felbermayer, soprano; Viktor Graf, piano. Vanguard, recorded 1952

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Leonard Bernstein, piano. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Nov. 5-6, 1968

Bernd Weikl, baritone; Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. (orch. Harold Byrns) DG, recorded January 1985

* * * * *

Now we come to a song I fell in love with in the Seraphim LP reissue of Christa Ludwig's gorgeous 1959 recital of Mahler songs with piano accompaniment, supplied by the inimitable Gerald Moore. It really sounds like a different song in her performance, which is noticeably quicker and also vocally much more confident than anyone else's I've heard. In the very opening phrase, Mahler asks the singer to vault effortlessly through a range of an octave and a sixth (basically sounding a major triad), a hard enough vocal feat if you're not trying to make the words and notes emotionally meaningful. Ludwig simply soars through it; I've never heard anyone else tread so joyfully through that green wood.

Thirty-five years later, at 65, Ludwig included "Ich ging mit Lust" on at least the New York leg of her long international "farewell" recital tour, and of course the song required more effort from her, but the magic was still there -- and she still sang it better than anyone else I've heard.

"Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald"
("I walked with joy through a green wood")

[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

I walked with joy through a green wood.
I heard the little birds singing.
They sang so young, they sang so old,
The little woodbirds in the green wood!
How gladly I heard them singing, yes singing.

Now sing, Mistress Nightingale!
Sing at my true love's house.
Come as soon as it's dark,
When no one is on the path.
Then come to me!
I'll let you in, yes let you.

Day passed, night broke.
He came to his true love's.
He taps so gently on the ring.
Hey, are you sleeping or awake, my child?
I have stood so long!

The moon shines through the little window,
On the fair, sweet love.
The nightingale sang the whole night.
You sleepy little maid, pay attention!
Where has your heart's love been?

Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Gerald Moore, piano. EMI, recorded May 1-5, 1959

Diana Damrau, soprano; Stephan Matthias Lademann, piano. Telos Music Vocal, recorded 2003

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Leonard Bernstein, piano. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded in New York City, Nov. 5-6-, 1968

Thomas Hampson, baritone; Philharmonia Orchestra, Luciano Berio, arr. and cond. Teldec, recorded October 1992


We're going to hear a couple of the more mature Mahler Wunderhorn songs, including what I might call his most wonderful song -- not the same thing as his "greatest" song, which I would be totally unable to name. But for sheer wonderfulness, this one's hard to beat.

Then Sunday we're going to turn all of this into, well, something.


The current list is here.

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At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Bil said...



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