MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Kindertotenlieder; Ruckert Lieder – Christian Gerhaher, bar./ Montreal Sym. Orch./ Kent Nagano – Sony Classical 88883701332, 54:43 ***1/2:
These creamy, buffed, satin patina readings might not be for all Mahlerian sensibilities out there. Indeed, Mahler’s songs in general occupy a place of non-descript descriptiveness, commentary on the work at hand, usually symphonic (like the concurrence of the Songs on the Death of Children and the Fifth Symphony) but not always, showing a direct, suitably communicative utterance of the composer that is not always as easy to apprehend in the large works. The Songs of a Wayfarer, written 20 years before the others on this disc, are texted by Mahler himself, quite self-consciously imitating the Youth’s Magic Horn that provided so much fodder for him over the course of a lifetime. Mahler loved this collection; the Romantic nationalism of the texts appealed to his innate German-ness, but more importantly their tales of love and life hit home with the youthful Mahler that allowed him to easily apply the sentiments to his own emotional core. Wayfarer could almost be a part of this collection, so ingrained is its essence in Wunderhorn. Gerhaher sings these very well indeed, bringing just the right amount of suavity and dreaminess to the music that fits so well in Mahler’s conception.
Friedrich Ruckert, a lawyer and prolific poet of the early 1800s, engaged his ascendency during the time Napoleon was on the rise as well, and his prolific stature served him well in German legend and lore for many years. Mahler here selected five poems to set to music, the first edition also including two Wunderhorn songs and called Seven Songs of Latter Days. The work is not a cycle as such, and retains minor commonality through some of the poetic themes. Many artists have re-ordered their sequence. Gerhaher brings a lot of luxury to these readings, more than I usually find acceptable, and though I will always be attached to the recording with John Barbirolli and Janet Baker (EMI), which brings more “bite” and angularity, this is a valid take on the music.
The same thing applies to Songs on the Death of Children. Ruckert also wrote these; in fact he wrote 428 of them, and Mahler decides on five. This is his last and greatest song cycle, one which was begun when things were going fairly well for him—wife Alma could not understand why he was writing to such texts—but concluded when life had taken on some shadows, symbolizing the idea of fate which Mahler so readily embraced, and which was a common theme among Romantic artists of that era. So it was around a four year period before these gems saw the final light of day, and they are among the most profoundly expressive of any set of lieder, as only something so topical could perhaps be. Gerhaher again irons out the many wrinkles in this music, perhaps robbing it of some of its pathos—and best exemplified by Janet Baker again, this time in her recording with Leonard Bernstein (Sony)—thereby making the final two songs, which change tone and become more optimistic, more effective than the first three.
The recording matches the interpretations, quite soft and lush, very clear, but lacking the spectacular clarity and dynamic import of the former Montreal recordings done while the orchestra was under Dutoit for Decca. Now the orchestra records in the brand new Maison symphonique de Montreal, and I suspect it will be a little while until the engineers completely understand the acoustics of the new space. But I must say that the sound is rather seductive in its quietness, and we should expect good things in the future. Nagano, who has been at the helm of the orchestra since 2006—and has recorded all of this music before–has just had his contract extended until 2020, so we should see some real continuity and development in the ensemble, which is playing very well.