Live from Salzburg = WAGNER, MAHLER: Lieder – Elina Garanca/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Christian Thielemann – DGG

by | May 18, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Live from Salzburg = WAGNER: Wesendonck Lieder; MAHLER: Ruckert-Lieder – Elina Garanca, mezzo-soprano/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Christian Thielemann – DGG 486 1929 (10/29/11) 40:18 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Two live concerts taped at the Salzburg Great Festival Playhouse from August 2020 (Wagner) and July 2021 (Mahler) testify to the assertive spirit for music-making that defied the rigors and dangers of the Covid pandemic ravaging the world. A sense of vigilant optimism suffused the first appearance of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca at the Salzburg Festspielhaus, the limited number of concert attendees carefully masked, screened for infection, and then scattered in their seating arrangements on the side of caution. Each of the 20-minute programs concentrated on a song-cycle, although the works by Mahler were intended as separate art-songs. Much of Richard Wagner’s 1857/58 settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck served as preparatory, emotional explorations more deeply expressed in his opera Tristan und Isolde. The Wagner songs, originally scored for voice and piano, received orchestral treatment from Felix Mottl, whose edition Thielemann employs here at Salzburg. 

Der Engel (“The Angel”) opens the suite of five Wagner songs in G Major, with Garanca’s smoothly soft vocal line soaring above the accompaniment. The theme of Mathilde Wesensonck’s poem combines spiritual salvation achieved by means of a blissful death. At the three appearances of the word Engel, the music ascends a fourth, even to a high G in the second occurrence. The few moments of G Minor and D Minor contribute to the lyric’s sense of loss. The harp-like articulations from the VPO strings evoke the presence of heavenly ambitions. 

Mathilde Wesendonck’s intellectual interest informs the second song, Stehe still! (“Be Still!”), with its strong Schopenhauer influence. The musical impulse captures “the wheel of time” that sets forward the poem’s eleven couplets. The first half of the poem focuses on the rush of temporal concerns, while the second half allows the couple to discover each other and redefine time. Garanca’s voice modulates the phrase lengths, elongating the sense of time, as Wagner directs, Allmählich immer etwas zurückhaltend,
“gradually, with constant restraint.” The triumph of C Major might indicate that Nature herself approves “the eternal day of the will,” and Nature’s “riddle” is solved when lovers’ eyes and lips discover “the imprint of eternity.” 

The third song, Im Treibhaus (“In the Hothouse”), was Mathilde’s final poem, rife with pain and melancholy. The trees in the poem, with canopies of emerald, signal the end of a passionate love-affair. The narrator will suffer alone, in darkness. Two themes, “The Pain of Death” and “Desolation” will incorporate into Tristan, Act III Prelude, especially after Tristan receives his mortal wound. The piece begins and ends in D Minor, asking Garanca to proceed in recitative-style. She expresses her sorrow as an extension of the voice of Nature, and Thielemann maintains a soft and eerie, intimate presence. Schmenzen (“Torment”), the briefest of the lyrics at 32 measures, attempts to find solace in the fact that, in Nature, the sun must set each day and then return, a glorious hero. Why should a lover despair, when she too, may arise after a cruel departure? When Garanca utters, “proud, victorious hero,” she sings ff. at the top of her range, with the progressions of the sun set first in A-flat and eventually moving to C Major.  

Wesendonck had presented Wagner with the poem, Träume, as the second in the series; Wagner sets it as his fifth entry, beginning and ending in A-flat Major. The main themes of this poem concern the “Seductiveness of Mystery,” the allure of Night, and Dreams. A peaceful death descends upon this enchanted vision, “the sinking down into the grave.” The elements of love-death that inform Tristan reverberate in this lyric, the music’s employing  a diminished 7th on F to move from E-flat to D-flat. Garanca’s voice, with controlled chest-tone, manages a truly persuasive diminuendo, as the lovers succumb to “the sweet oblivion of night.”  

Gustav Mahler set to music the five poems of Friedrich Rückert in the summers of 1901-02. The fifth of these lyrics, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (“I am by the world forgotten, abandoned”), many consider his finest lied; and Mahler felt a powerful kinship with its sentiment, rejecting the diurnal reality for a more enduring vision of eternity. He incorporates much of the musical tissue into the Adagietto of his Symphony No. 5 of 1902. Much in the same spirit as Schubert’s refined songs, Mahler’s five songs address aspects of Nature, beauty, suffering, loneliness, with its punishing sense of spiritual isolation. Garanca adjusts her voice to color each of the songs in its own sensibility, and her rising scale in the brief but poignant moment, Liebst du um, Liebe, o ja – mich liebe! (“If you love for love, o yes – then love me!”) can bring tears. 

The audacious harmonic idiom of Im Mitternacht imposes its own sense of color, the orchestral part devoid of strings. The singer’s voice intrudes into the dark skies above, finding no answers to the sufferings and anguish of existence. The fluctuating, dotted  figure in the clarinets, and the later horn exclamations contribute to a sense of futility, a fanfare of resignation to a higher power, much like Hamlet’s, “There is a divinity that shapes our ends.” The fourth song, the abrupt Blicke nicht in die Lieder! (“Do not look at my songs!”) demands we not inquire too much into the process of creation, a motto subscribed to almost absolutely by Johannes Brahms. The analogy to the natural work of bees finds an echo in the buzzing effect in the muted strings of the orchestra. Only the completed work counts; do not ask how the work came to be. 

The harp and English horn set the tone for the last song, a lament for discarded talent, lost love, and rejected life-potential. The poet finds immortality in his work, rather than in his daily life, a sentiment close to many a Shakespeare sonnet. The French horn adds a distinctive hue to Garanca’s reflection that “the world thinks me dead.” The real devotion in this life has been found in the poet’s commitment to his Heaven-sent mission to art, a metaphysical labor of love.  The last chords honor those present at the concert and those who will remain forever absent from Covid.

—Gary Lemco 

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