MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (arr. Schoenberg); Kindertotenlieder; Four songs from Ruckert Lieder; Im Lenz; Winterlied; Ablosung im Sommer; Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen; Fruhlingsmorgen – Bernarda Fink, mezzo/ Anthony Spiri, p./ Gustav Mahler Ens./ Tonkunstler-Orchester Niederosterreich/ Andres Orozco-Estrada – Harmonia mundi HMC 902173, 77:53 (5/13/14) *****:
MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Kindertotenlieder; Five songs from Ruckert Lieder – Hermine Havelock, mezzo-soprano/ Russell Ryan, p. – Bridge 9341, 60:25 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
It’s not too often that I get to make such a head-to-head comparison between discs; unfortunately this one isn’t quite that, but it’s close. Bernarda Fink employs a chamber orchestra using Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, while her Kindertotenlieder is the orchestral version we all know. Haselbock on the other hand, relies instead on the piano scores Mahler left for these two, including in the notes the comment that in the piano versions “we gain, perhaps, a more immediate insight into the essence and structure of each individual song.”
No, we don’t. That’s a cheesy and well-worn argument that does not stand the test of objective and empirical argument for any listener, and in the end it ultimately means that every larger-scale piece of music benefits when heard on a smaller scale, which is sheer folly. Yet I read this all the time in CD liner notes. Believe me, the Mahler songs, while losing a little bit of their color and emotive power in the piano versions, still pack quite a punch.
Hearing both mezzos back-to-back provides quite an interesting comparison. Haselbock, whom I have encountered twice before in the music of Zemlinsky  and Schreker offered fine performances in both those composers, and if I felt that her interpretative ability was still a work in progress, much of that seems to have come to fruition in Mahler. Here she is quite assured and fluently proficient to the sensitivities of the texts, which are all-important in Mahler. Especially in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen her forcefulness and strong vocal presence, while not to all likings, make for a renewed and vigorously understated understanding of the music versus the words, with the former actually taking a backseat in some instances. This might seem like Mahler heresy to some, but I find it illuminating. I cannot but believe that Haselbock’s “strong” singing is intentional rather than natural—it feels like part of the interpretative process, and she does rein it for the Kindertotenlieder. The Ruckert songs pose no such dilemma, and are immune to much of what affects the greater cycles.
Yet with Bernarda Fink we encounter some Mahler performances that border on the sublime. Fink is not as strong a singer as Haselbock, and I can’t be sure that the orchestral support she gets doesn’t add to the experience (yes, I can—it does). But it doesn’t take a lot of close listening to hear the differences that she brings to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the results are pure poetry in terms of balance, subtlety, and hidden meaning. Likewise the Kindertotenlieder brings us directly into the thoughts and secrets of a grieving parent trying to come to terms with what has happened, whereas Haselbock is telling us almost as a third party—there is that difference in intimacy.
We do get one less Ruckert song on the Fink recital, but many of the other and very rewarding early songs are also given—a full additional seventeen minutes on a quite generous album.
So Fink would be my choice if forced to choose, but Haselbock still has much to offer, especially if you want to hear these wonders with piano alone. Sound on both albums is excellent.