MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn; BERG: Exceprts from Wozzeck – Janet Baker, contralto/Geraint Evans, baritone/Londn Philharmonic Orchestra/Wyn Morris/Phyllis Curtin, soprano (Berg)/Boston Symphony Orchestra/BSO Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf – HDTT (CD-R)

by | Feb 1, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

MAHLER: Des Knaben  Wunderhorn; BERG: Exceprts from Wozzeck – Janet Baker, contralto/Geraint Evans, baritone/Londn Philharmonic Orchestra/Wyn Morris/Phyllis Curtin, soprano (Berg)/Boston Symphony Orchestra/BSO Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf

HDTT HDCD144, 51:00 [CD-R, also avail. as 96K DVD-R – www.highdeftapetransfers.com/) ****:

Wyn Morris (b. 1929) remains one of the more under-rated Mahler exponents, but his training under Szell and Markevitch certainly qualifies him for a membership in the Mahler pantheon of distinguished interpreters. And if the mazurkas are the key to Chopin, the folk song reveals the heart of Gustav Mahler, and his sequences (perhaps a better term than “cycles”) of settings of Arnim and Brentano’s “The Youth’s Magic Horn” utter the plaintive, sarcastic, and poignant bases of his larger, symphonic oeuvre.  Between 1892 and 1901 Mahler set down some fifteen texts for voice-combinations and orchestra, thus refining his vocal-instrumental color-technique. Mahler introduced his various sets of songs (Mahler called them ballads and humoresks) in five installments, live concerts that took place between 1892-1905. Many of the songs exude a militant affect (“Revelge,” for instance), while others lament on the usual Mahler concerns: life, nature, mortality, the ephemeral delights of love.

The Mahler recording (1974) derives from 4-track World Tape Club sources, in excellent sound that allows both Baker and Evans full vocal sway while the color elements, like the E-flat clarinet, piccolo, tympani, snare and bass drums, crash cymbals, and three bassoons make their effect, among others, evident. The No. 8 “Trost im Ungluck” makes an immediate sensation, rife–as is No. 5 “Lab Des Hohen Verstandes”–with materials to supply a host of Kurt Weill songs. The No. 5 projects harmonies I find redolent with Grofe and Copland!  Viennese and pastoral at once, the swagger of the rhythms is infectious, irreverent, and earthy at once.

No. 9, the “Des Antonius Von Padua Fischpredigt,” directly “translates” into the Resurrection Symphony, here with Janet Baker’s wittily demure characterization. “Verlorne Muh” a lonely waltz or laendler dialogue with strings, winds, and triangle support, constantly threatens to explode with agonized pathos but keeps its restraint, albeit rich in bucolic fragrances. The same world-weariness we detect in the Songs of a Wayfarer or in many Schubert lieder we find in “Das Irdische Leben” – made more poignant by Baker’s smoky voice and the acerbic comments from the clarinet and piping flutes over dainty string pizzicati. The last of the set of twelve, “Der Tamboursg’sell,” could have been composed by Erich Maria Remarque or Wilfred Owen. Heinrich Schlusnus is my preferred artist in this punishing indictment of war, but Evans holds his own, while tuba and assorted horns both mock and cry the urge to our destruction of youth. Evans’ “Gute nacht” says it all, a darkness of Mankind itself.

The excerpts from Berg’s Wozzeck derive from 4-track RCA tapes. To continue the note of eerie, gloomy despair and sarcastic contempt for Man’s foibles, we open with Curtin’s mock-march to “Soldaten,” the soldiers. With a violin obbligato, she and every soldier’s mother fall into a pit of despair, the harp and flute seeming to whistle the departed souls to a questionable heaven. Curtin’s voice makes Berg sweetly accessible, the Sprechstimme having become as liquid and clear as German diction will permit. Marie then muses on nature and whether Jesus himself still has power in this world of twitters, screeches, and nightmares: is love and parenthood yet possible? Amazing scoring–an audiophile’s dark party–by Berg allows the orchestra to comment on these haunting questions, and their “answer” proves less than reassuring. A series of rising scales in various registers and orchestral textures leaves us wondering whether the distinction between Heaven and Hell marks any real difference. We end with the agonized Intermezzo, a tribute to the color energy of the BSO under Leinsdorf’s experienced hand, the music already pointing to the moral disasters awaiting this powerful opera’s protagonists.

–Gary Lemco

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