Les Grands Interpretes Hermann Scherchen, Vol. 6 = MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-6: ST.-SAENS: Carnival of the Animals – Scherchen conducts – Tahra (2 CDs)

by | Apr 29, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Les Grands Interpretes Hermann Scherchen, Vol. 6 = MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsodies: No. 1 in F Minor; No. 2 in D Minor; No. 3 in D Major; No. 4 in D Minor; No. 5 in E Minor; No. 6 in D Major; SAINT-SAENS: Le Carnaval des animaux–fantasie zoologique – Lucretia West, contralto; Gary Moore, narrator/Josef and Grete Dichler, piano/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Liszt)/Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen

Tahra WEST 3011-3012, (2 CDs) 66:47; 71:29 [www.tahra.com] ****:

With the issue of these 1954-1958 performances by Hermann Scherchen, Tahra completes its revival of the Westminster sources for this energetic, willful conductor whose sheer range of musical motion embraced virtually all styles and periods. Scherchen joins mezzo-soprano Lucretia West (b. 1922) in the music of Gustav Mahler, the June 1958 inscriptions of Kindertotenlieder and The Songs of a Wayfarer (from WST 14059). Afro-American mezzo-soprano Lucretia West was touted in the European press as “a revived Marian Anderson incarnate,” with a beguiling, suave, vocal tone and broad culture. She attracted conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos as well for performances of the Mahler Third Symphony.

The opening set of Children’s Death Songs, after Rueckert, projects a Gothic, haunting atmosphere, no small thanks to the VSOO English horn, oboe, French horn, and harp, who provide West with cosmic tears and abandonment in D Minor. We must recall that Scherchen began conducting Mahler in 1914 (the Fifth Symphony), ever expanding his familiarity with the style to embrace a total of 83 performances over his long career. The second song, with its oxymoronic “dark flames” of the narrator’s memory of the beloved children‘s eyes, limps with C Minor elegies at every turn, the strings projecting a bitter, cold universe indifferent to human loneliness and suffering. As we listen to the third song, “Wenn dein Muetterlein. . .” in C Minor, we wonder how well Mahler knew Moussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. The fourth song punishes us with exquisite heartbreak and self-delusion in E-flat Major, that the beloveds will return in a moment. The last song, “In diesem Wetter,” has Mahler freakishly anticipating Weill, Berg, and Krenek, unable to decide if D Major or D Minor better celebrates the cannibal Mother Nature. Only at the end does West sing of transcendence, that the children rest in a cradling Hand, well beyond earthly storms and fears.  

West has a more common emotion to project in The Songs of a Wayfarer (1888), that of unrequited love, the (D Minor) tunes to become the bases of the composer’s D Major Symphony. West and the colorful orchestra segue into a pantheistic idyll, an illusion of rest and emotional respite in Nsture; and although this strategy recurs, it seems like a Fool’s Paradise. A definite marcato approach to the second song, “Ging heut’ morgens uebers Feld,” plays the narrator’s thwarted attempts to find succor in the beauties of the (D Major) world against his tragic sensibility. The D Minor “glowing knife in my breast” has West intoning in Mahler’s most blatantly operatic style, and Scherchen does not skimp on the blazing, sarcastic twisting of that savage blade of emotional desolation. In E Minor, the last song urges the narrator to follow those ‘blue eyes” into spatial and temporal oblivion. The collaborative pathos achieved between West and Scherchen’s forces makes this inscription eminently valuable to any Mahler connoisseur.

Few moments of music could be less in sympathy with Mahler’s personal spheres of anguish than the extroverted Six Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt, given their first (September 1954), mono inscription by Scherchen, who would re-record them in stereo in April 1959. Here, Scherchen works with Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the results are patently vivacissimo!  Hungarian, gypsy impulses abound, unfettered by any self-conscious prudery, and the RPO winds, battery, flute, harp, triangle, and brass enjoy ample opportunities for dazzling, color display. Each successive rhapsody tries to out do the last for unbuttoned, crackling, eccentric, Romantic rhetoric, in flagrante delicto! Scherchen takes some liberties (like two-flute and solo violin cadenzas) with the Second Rhapsody to imbue it with a Latin flavor. The friss section gives Stokowski a run for his money, as it does for the flutes. That Scherchen can make music that romps, scamps, and skitters, without the invocation of the tragic muse has its testament in the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4, which utilizes the cimbalom, a step away from Hary Janos. The E Minor No. 5 could pass as a processional symphonic poem of exalted beauty; and Scherchen’s realization rivals that of Karajan, one of the great ones. The largest of the set, No. 6 in D Major (“the Carnaval at Pesth”), sounds like a Greek dance in variations for Zorba, then a flute and harp concerto, until the wildly episodic csardas quite whisks us away.

The stereo recording of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals (20-21 May 1957) has its special qualities, among which include “nature” sounds collected from the Bronx Zoo and the narrative skills of TV personality Garry Moore (1915-1993), reading from humorous texts by John Burt, which, while not on a par with Ogden Nash, manage to capture the wit, charm, and brutishness of our zoo’s diverse residents. Nice stereo separation for the two pianos’ invocation of the hens and roosters and the mules‘ brays. We pass through mock-Offenbach for the mock-turtles. The elephants proper shriek, but the bass fiddle ponders Berlioz. “My very fondest wish is to swim, just like a fish.” So, the Aquarium shimmers and glides in limpid sound. Donkeys, animal, human and divine, screech by.  The Cuckoo betrays elements from Liszt and Moussorgsky, while pianos and virtuoso flute sail into avionics with aplomb. The Pianists section brings us back to earth with a decisive thump. A bit of self-deprecation in Fossils, the composer and Rossini in extinct handshakes. “I think a swan should be called ‘a boat.’” The two pianos and the strings of the VSOO think so, too. The Grand Finale flashes by in stellar array, reminding us how much more charming is the natural zoo than that human menagerie which too often proves too barbaric.

–Gary Lemco

Related Reviews