Hans Rosbaud Conducts Mahler: Symphonies 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9; “Das Lied von der Erde” – SWR Classic

by | Nov 23, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 1 comment

MAHLER: 6 Symphonies; Das Lied von der Erde. 1951-1961 = Symphony No. 1 in D Major; Symphony No. 4 in G Major; Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor; Symphony No. 6 in A Minor; Symphony No. 7 in E Minor; Symphony No. 9 in D Major; Das Lied von der Erde –  Eva Maria Rogner, soprano (Symphony No. 4)/ Grace Hoffmann, mezzo-soprano and Ernst Haefliger, tenor (Das Lied)/ SouthWest Radio-Orchestra, Baden-Baden/ Cologne Radio-Symphony Orchestra (Das Lied)/ Hans Rosbaud – SWR Classic SWR190999CD (8 CDs) 52:51; 54:42; 65:47; 48:41; 32:37; 76:51; 74:19; 62:00 (7/18/20) [Distr. by Naxos] *****: 

In my several, radio encounters – via “First Hearing” – with conductor Richard Kapp, student and proponent of his legendary teacher Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962), Kapp often boasted and lamented the extraordinary recorded legacy that remained untapped and unheard. SWR Classics has embarked on a major corrective to the Rosbaud situation, and now that includes a full compendium of the Mahler that Rosbaud led in Baden-Baden, 1951-1961. No small irony that Munich first provided Rosbaud a venue to re-introduce Mahler to the post-War German mind, the very center of anti-Semitic antagonism that had brought eternal disgrace to a national culture. Even so, Rosbaud’s tenure in Munich was not extended beyond 1948 due to his Mahler advocacy, and he moved to Baden-Baden, where he established his orchestra as among the leaders in the presentation of contemporary music.

Along with contemporary Mahler exponents Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) and Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966), Rosbaud left no integral survey of the complete Mahler symphonies. But those documents we possess project the same volatile energy and plasticity of temperament requisite to the Mahler style. The force of his Symphony No. 1 in D Major (16 September 1961) rivals the conceptions of both Mitropoulos – in his various versions in both Minneapolis and New York – and Jascha Horenstein with the LSO. Along with my preferred Bruno Walter reading, that with the New York Philharmonic, this Rosbaud reading fully captures the pantheistic allure and personal melancholy that permeates the score. 

The Symphony No. 4 in G Major (14 May 1959) – the last of Mahler Wunderhorn symphonies that owe direct obligations to the art of song –  emanates the emotional dualism that infiltrates this music; again, the call of Nature, but no less the lure of eerie and morbid that inhabits the second movement – with its death-fiddle – and the last movement, whose poem depicts a fascinating, somewhat jarring slaughter in Heaven. 

Mahler’s major break with his essentially lyric style occurs in his Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor (rec. Cologne, 22 October 1951), music likely related to the composer’s diagnosed heart condition, which he interpreted musically in the rhythmic “fate” motive emotionally aligned with Beethoven. Besides the sheer scope and emotional ferocity of the performance, we realize Rosbaud’s capacity to illuminate the evolving form of Mahler’s music, its internal unities and the vast arches in the music’s design. Before the last period in the first movement, we literally feel the abyss yawn to receive Mahler’s flagging life’s energy. The middle two movements rage against the dying of the light, with passion and humor, respectively, only to yield to some vast sense of acceptance in the splendid Adagietto, which proceeds in a numinous haze, paced slowly and with great personal rubato, but without dragging or swimming in molasses. The Rondo Finale finds both consolation and denial in Nature, with the Adagietto’s playful, ironic transformations caught in a mortal storm.

Portrait Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr

Gustav Mahler,
by Moritz Nähr

The 1904 Symphony No. 6 in A Minor “Tragic” (rec. 6 April 1961), perhaps the most “autobiographical” of the Mahler symphonies, seems beset by dire marches. Rosbaud performs the second edition of the score, placing the potently ameliorative Andante moderato after the punishing Scherzo. Obsessive thoughts on the death of children blended with Alma Mahler’s consoling presence to inform this massive, often bleak score, which finally confronts its persona with “three hammer blows of fate,” the last of which “fells him like a tree.” The mighty chords that appear in A Major offer no solace. The consolation of Nature – its distant mountains and cowbells – proves ethereal. That the Scherzo serves as an unnerving parody of the opening Allegro enegico only intensifies the cruel and disintegrating aspects of fate, even if the consolation of love proves all the sweeter. The E Major Andante exists in a transparent aether all its own, and this rendition competes with the Mitropoulos version in New York but must cede pride of place to that by Mitropoulos in Vienna, 1957. The low C and the sound of harp and muted strings which open the Finale bode little good for our protagonist, who appears enveloped in an alien, hostile universe. Rosbaud has his tuba and trombones forward to enunciate the ultimate A Minor dirge that blasts the “infant’s tear and marriage-hearse.” Despite the sense of inevitable defeat of the last, massive movement, Rosbaud infuses many of the passages with heroic luster, a kid of Hemingway “Man may be destroyed but not defeated” ethos. 

Mahler struggled with the score of his Symphony No. 7 in E Minor, well beyond the 1904-1905 time slot usually allotted this creation, since he tinkered with the work literally up to the time of its 1908 premiere.  Rosbaud’s performance (20 February 1957) has for its most intense rival the performances by Hermann Scherchen, with both the Vienna Symphony (1953) and Toronto Symphony (1965), the latter faster in concept but no less surreal in its emphasis on the element of grotesquerie that suffuses this complicated score. Rosbaud, like Scherchen (and Leonard Bernstein, in my preferred first recording with the New York Philharmonic on CBS), sees this so-called “Night” Symphony as a seminal 20th Century creation, with little patience for sentimentality, despite allusions to The Merry Widow, Die Meistersinger and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. 

Rosbaud imposes a lean grip on the proceedings, and the forward drive of this music proves relentless. We will pay attention to the progress of the Baden-Baden trombone! Whether the nightmarish, “shadowy” Scherzo means to be a parody or not, its stylized gestures in the middle of a huge symphonic arch make it crucial to the fulcrum of a musical gesture equivalent either to  – as Mahler cited – Rembrandt’s The Night Watch or those elongated, ghostly figures in El Greco. My favorite moment still resides in the whole of Nachtmusik I, which I first heard via Bernard Haitink on my “First Hearing” debut, but Rosbaud’s horns and col legno and pizzicato strings still haunt me effectively. If I am allowed a personal lament or two: one, that Mitropoulos did not commit this exceedingly colorful score to record; and that, given a performance by Bruno Walter in France that was recorded, authorities decided to delete it and preserve – Eine kleine nachtmsusik! 

If we recall that a parodic funeral march inhabits Mahler’s First Symphony, it comes as no surprise to note the vast appearances of death motifs in the entire symphonic oeuvre. The Ninth Symphony (1909) has come to mean “Farewell” on multiple levels: to Mahler’s own life, to the security of musical tonality, to the comforts of pre-20th Century civilization. Terribly superstitious, Mahler had felt anyone’s ninth symphony tempted fate, given the progress in Beethoven and Bruckner.  He attempted to circumvent fate with his Das Lied von der Erde,  a “Symphony for Tenor, Alto Voice and Orchestra,” which would have made the D Major his Tenth Symphony, with yet another, a Symphony in F-sharp, on the horizon.

Hans Rosbaud (7 January 1954) takes up the opening Andante comodo as the thematic and harmonic extensions of the last thoughts, the repetitions of the ewig (forever) impulse of a farewell that is no less an existential constant. Some conductors, like Jascha Horenstein, see the motif as one among many in a complex tapestry of contradictory energies, but Rosbaud treats the motif as a grundgestalt, a founding structure.  The D Major theme surges forward, as manic as it is confident; and, for all the discussions about the quality of the Baden-Baden ensemble in light of competing orchestras, recall these players, hand-picked by Rosbaud, asserted the same kind of alert response Fricsay gleaned from his especial orchestra at the Berlin radio.  Between the huge slow movements that frame the work, the interior movements shed an ironic, violent, and fantastical hues – in the laendler and burleske episodes – on the nature of mortality, including dance music of paradoxically intricate, learned, folkish, and banal quality. The degree to which Mahler imbibed classical counterpoint has rarely effected such contentious idioms in music.  Emotionally, the Rosbaud interpretation seems, in its guided detachment, miles from the classic reading by Bruno Walter from 1938 Vienna. Yet, in its warmer moments of nostalgic lyricism, we hear the plaints of his marginalia: “O Beauty, O Love, Farewell, farewell!” and Rosbaud achieves that same, inflamed pathos that pleas to the skies for justice. 

Finally, we have the Das Lied von der Erde (18 April 1955) that the Vox label  bequeathed the record catalogue for years. We might consider this last song-cycle a part of the “Death Trilogy” that includes the Ninth and the Tenth Symphonies. Eighteen months prior to his embarking on the D Major Symphony, Mahler’s daughter Maria Anna had died; and he subsequently resigned the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, he received the diagnosis about his failing heart, and he discovered his wife Alma’s affair with architect Walter Gropius. These extraordinary shocks to the system find expression immediately in the realization of Hans Bethge’s German rendering of “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Woe,” with its detached comment, “Dark is Life; Dark is Death,” to which the music responds with no less than contoured hysteria.  Tenor Ernst Haefliger casts a smoother, more refined patina upon the moment than does Julius Patzak for Bruno Walter in 1952. And Bruno Walter has the insurmountable addition of Kathleen Ferrier in the contralto part, a voice whose natural pathos draws “an iron tear down Pluto’s cheek.”  Still, Grace Hoffmann (1921-2008) delivers a sincere intimacy to her Der Einsame im Herbst and to the all-imposing Abschied, which tests her stamina as well as her capacity for cosmic understanding, that Man’s sojourn on Earth is brief, but the Earth endureth forever. 

Despite the inflated stereotypes of Mahler as world-weary, the vitality and color of the orchestral part, as in Von der Jugend, suggest what Otto Klemperer attested to “a very lively, even a cheerful nature.  He could become very angry only with those who failed to do their duty.”  Hans Rosbaud’s service to Gustav Mahler, as documented in these fine restorations, far exceed the merely “dutiful.”

–Gary Lemco


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