Christiane Karg sings Mahler — Harmonia Mundi

by | Mar 31, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Lieder = Des Knaben Wunderhorn: 9 Songs; Lieder und Gesänge: 5 Songs; Rückert Lieder– Christiane Kang, soprano/ Malcolm Martineau, piano/ Gustav Mahler, piano roll – Harmonia mundi HMM 905338, 66:44 (9/19/20) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

Among the cornerstones of the Romantic movement stands the 1805 collection of purportedly authentic, German folk poems by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a compilation of three installments comprising 723 poems. In fact, the compilers had not considered “authenticity” their prime motive and made free with the texts, even contributing – in three installments – original verses of their own. In full confidence of their aesthetic intentions, they dedicated their book of German verses to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, much the impetus of German Romanticism. The beguiled Goethe wrote, “By rights, this little book would find a place in every house where bright and vital people make their home,” and Goethe then suggested a gifted composer might define these verses with his own musical style. 

While some may argue that late 19th Century lieder set in folk style emphasize rhythmical and metrical schemes over the melodic line, Mahler’s songs never forget their innate vocalism, in order to maintain his songs’ deeply personal expressiveness. He once told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner that the last of the Rückert Lieder, the restrained and concentrated Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am by the world forgotten, abandoned) “is my very self!” Before Mahler, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms had invested their creativity into Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 

We must not forget the close correspondence between Mahler’s intimate song style and his massive, opulent symphonic works, at least from Das klagende Lied through his first four symphonies. Two of the songs find themselves in movements of the Second and Third Symphonies, and Das himmlische Leben virtually constitutes the entire last movement of the G Major Fourth Symphony. It was not until after Mahler’s death that his two collections, the Five Lieder for Voice and Piano and the first set of Wunderhorn Lieder, were combined to form Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit. The range of these songs is generally an octave and a half to two octaves, which is typical for singers. These early collections of songs by Mahler adhere to a traditional compositional style, as for many of these early songs, the accompaniment remains largely homophonic, with the voice most often doubled.

Portrait Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr

Gustav Mahler,
by Moritz Nähr

Karg and Martineau open with two of the Wunderhorn songs, Rheinlegendchen and Wer hat Liedlein erdacht? Each of these preserves a fairy-tale sensibility while colorfully attending to the character of the words with a mastery that rivals Schubert. The former indulges in thirds and sixths, the keyboard’s imitating a country fiddle. Karg’s voice has a lightness we associate not only with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf but with Lucia Popp. The yodeling song Wer hat Liedlein erdacht? gives us a 3/8 motor element that enjoys a mocking tone and a virtuoso demand for seven high E-flats from Karg. Hanse und Grete (1892) has a text by Mahler himself, a mixture of extroverted waltz and deep introspection. Its melodic contour invades his Songs of a Wayfarer and his First Symphony. Slight variations ensue despite the similarity of the melodic line, what Theodor Adorno noted in Mahler as his ability to alter what appears to be the same: “the music never says the same thing twice in the same way, [so] subjectivity plays a part.” No less crucial, Mahler’s demand for diminuendo proves a factor. Pablo Casals once quipped, “Diminuendo is the life of music.” Here, we find ascending leaps that must decrescendo, which Karg manages in sweet form.

Karg then addresses six of the Wunderhorn series, beginning with Ablosung in Sommer, the 1896 fairy-tale song that becomes the scherzo of the D Minor Third Symphony. Mahler originally wished to entitle the piece, “What the cuckoo tells me.” The keyboard itself has a coloratura, glittering treble. Mahler employs hemiola – agogic shift – in measures 10 and 11 to exert a duple effect in the left hand. Scheiden und Meiden” (Partings) explores the metric juxtaposition of two versus three used in “Ablösung im Sommer.” Like both Schubert and Wagner, Mahler employs repeated ostinato figures as the motive force, as the text begins, trumpetlike, “There rode three horsemen,” opening in F Major. The music switches from triple to duple time, slowing a bit without losing the constant eighth note, in the manner of folk song. Kang intones four lovely Fs on the word “Ade” to say farewell, as had Schubert used it in his Abschied. 

Unrequited love, a long-familiar subject, forms the context of Verlor’ne Müh, while Des Antonius von Padua Fishpredigt (1893) casts a dismal and sardonic humor in 3/8 that will inhabit the third movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. As in Schubert, Nature can prove indifferent to human strife. The depiction of hunger and death in Das irdische Leben has a mechanical totentanz character, reminding us of how much death haunted Mahler’s own childhood and his own children. Nature is not always “the bread and the life.” The eerie, martial atmosphere of Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen extends the Medieval Tagelied, the day’s call away from the arms of love to the arms of war and death. 

With the advent of Mahler’s exploration of poems by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) his music assumes a simplification and linear method, a process of increased intensity of expression. The nocturnal impress of Robert Schumann infiltrates his songs, like Um Mitternacht, in which Karg’s voice rises in exqusitie anguish at Nicht kont’ich sie entscheiden in her thoughts of human suffering and her seeking cosmic consolation. This purifying thought carries over to Liebst du um Schönheit, a song that had ramifications for Mahler’s marriage, since it related to his former love for soprano Anna von Mildenburg. Bliss and cruel yearning combine in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (1901), which proceeds in pentatonic tones that anticipate Das Lied von der Erde. The haunted, descending melodic line indicates the composer’s withdrawal from earthly cares.

The song Erinnerung (Remembrance), from the Lieder und Gesänge set, contains text by Richard Leander. Curiously, this song – to be sung “fervently and ardently” – starts in F minor but ends a whole step higher in G minor. This is the only piece in the collection that makes this sort of tonal transition. Throughout this song, Mahler juxtaposes a duple and triple feel in the piano part. The song Nicht wiedersehen! (Never to meet again). is scored very low on the piano and would be easy to lose the melody inside of the harmony of the accompaniment. Mahler instructs the pianist to use the pedals freely; however perhaps the dampening pedal should be the most important. The song has been a heavy-hearted march in B minor, but in the manner of folk poetry, direct speech enters into the boy’s plaint, and this soon effects a change of the music into a B major, which is, if anything, even more heart-rending than the preceding minor.

Phantasie contains text by Tirso de Molina. Marked dreamily, the piano imitates a harp. This dream-like fantasy movement moves slowly, letting Karg’s song develop. Mahler indicated a number of tempo fluctuations, including poco rit, espressivo, and “somewhat slower” at measure 19. He also spreads four fermatas throughout the music. Mahler uses alliteration to draw out the text as the nets are “cast into the sea.” The fermata and subsequent silence create a real sense of the nets’ slowly falling through the water. Time stands still as the narrator waits in anticipation to find out if they will catch something.

Finally, Karg’s personal moment of musical association: she sings both Ich ging mit Lust and Das himmlische Leben with Mahler at the keyboard in 1905, preserved by the Welte-Mignon piano roll process. Mahler moves quicky, a directed pace that consciously avoids placid symmetry for the curious anguish of the heavenly slaughter he depicts. Slow and lively tempos interchange in the Mahler canon, and his Fourth Symphony exemplifies the “informed innocence” of his personal style. So far as “authenticity” serves as a musical value, this collaboration stands apart.

—Gary Lemco


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