MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder; Five Ruckertlieder; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone/ Mutare Ensemble/ Gerhard Muller-Hornbach, leader – NCA Multichannel SACD 60166, 63:10 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The turn of the beginning of the last century saw the increase of arrangements such as these—practical matters made it imperative that smaller ensembles be utilized to present music to audiences that otherwise would not have had a chance to hear these works as often-insurmountable difficulties arose in terms of cost and production issues. The good side to this is that the chamber ensemble got quite a boost, especially among those dedicated to the slowly-emerging Schoenbergian ideals—chamber symphonies and all sorts of variants begin to spring up constantly, to music’s general advantage.
In the case of Mahler, when considering his vocal works, nearly all of which started as piano and voice pieces, the smaller ensemble could work to good advantage, as so much of Mahler’s scoring for large orchestra rarely uses the full forces of the ensemble and instead relies of chamber-like atmospherics to provide much of the accompaniment.
I am happy to report that director Gerhard Muller-Hornbach’s realizations of the Kindertotenlieder and Five Ruckertlieder are quite successful, Mahlerian in scope and sonority, while avoiding getting in the composer’s way. The former is probably the best, mainly because I don’t think the Ruckertlieder are as easily orchestrally imaged as the Kindertotenlider (I don’t think the large orchestra recording that effective either).
The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are probably the most famous Mahler composed, and nobody knew them better than Schoenberg, who completed this arrangement. Needless to say, it is also very well done, completely in the spirit of Mahler’s music, really missing the large orchestra not a mite.
I was initially a little afraid of this release because I am always—and with good reason—skeptical of reductions of any kind. But this is a very enjoyable and superbly-realized setting of these seminal works. Klaus Mertens is a much known quantity here, an artist of superior credentials, and he brings these pieces off with hardly a second thought, even sounding like Fischer-Dieskau to me in several spots, high honor indeed. The Mutare Ensemble responds with sensitive and alert accompaniment—if we can even call it that, for it is far more—and the surround sound captures everything in spatial perfection.
I will mention however, that for those wanting the Ruckertlieder in piano form, there is no better recording than that of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Roger Vignoles on Wigmore Hall Live.
— Steven Ritter