MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550; MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder; R. STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar./ Michel Schwalbe, v./ Berlin Philharmonic/ Karl Boehm – Testament SBT2 1489 (2 CDs), 52:32, 33:25 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Karl Boehm (1894-1981) brought his repute in the Austro-German tradition to the Salzburg Festival for the concert of 19 August 1962, substituting the 1896 symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra that would have to suffice the Salzburg audience in lieu of any opera by that composer.  In matters Mozartean, Boehm had been a protégé of Bruno Walter at the Munich Opera and a successor to Fritz Busch in Dresden. Always robust and forcefully accented, Boehm’s Mozart left a virile impression, with nothing of the Nineteenth Century’s “rococo delicacy” impression of Mozart remaining. The healthy, suave tone of the cellos in the Trio of the Menuetto and the ensuing, passing dissonances in the horns ring out with aggressive authority. While communicating a tragic affect, nothing effeminate or chaste emanates from the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Finale: Allegro assai catapults forward and does not relinquish its inflamed throttle. Even so, the individual colors from oboe and flute imbue the muscularly wrought figures with shades of noble grace. Typically, warmth, vitality and poise provide the epithets for this assured reading, intimate and colossal, deep-felt and spirited, at once. The audience at Salzburg concurs.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) joins Boehm for the grueling cycle (1901-1904) of Kindertotenlieder (Children’s Death Songs) of Gustav Mahler,  which the gifted baritone had recorded with Rudolf Kempe in 1955. Fischer-Dieskau claimed that nay successful singer of these plaintive songs must have mastered them psychologically and have memorized the orchestral part as well. Set to poems by Friedrich Rueckert, Mahler’s wrings our emotions with his personal heartbreak, since the poet himself suffered the loss of his two youngest of six children, celebrated in more than 400 poems. When the Mahlers’ eldest daughter died of diphtheria and scarlet fever in 1907, Alma Mahler felt that Gustav had “tempted Providence” in the writing of these songs; but commentators find that Mahler’s fascination with death extends back to the death in 1874 of his own brother Ernst,  who shared the same name as one of Rueckert’s unfortunate children.

Mahler calls for much smaller orchestra than he used in his symphonies, frequently evoking a chamber-music texture that goes beyond the level of intimacy suggested in the symphonies. There is no better example than the very opening of the first song, with its stark solo oboe and horn, followed by the bassoon and horn once the singer enters, with only the cellos, in a high register, filling in at first.

The English horn has a poignant solo in the third song, while the violins are omitted to darken the string sound. The plaints of the harp intensify the frailty of the exposed emotions. Solo instruments, the horn in particular, Mahler uses with great effect throughout the cycle, “symphonic” effects occurring relatively infrequently (in the concluding section of the fourth song, of Nun seh’ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen, the father recalls his children’s eyes, and his tortured “O Augen!” when repeated communicates what only music can about personal grief. The close thematic continuity to the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony has often been noted. The third song, Wenn dein Muetterlein tritt zur Tuer herein, resembles in texture – Fischer-Dieskau’s sharing the grim melodic line with the English horn – a sad cantata movement from Bach in C Minor. The low Gs signify a child too early lost to implacable fate. The last two songs anticipate the monumental valediction of Das Lied von der Erde, colored by moments – after a dreadful psychological storm in the final song – of tearful hope for an eventual reunion in a better place, “covered by God’s hand.”

Boehm always held a strong affinity for the music of Richard Strauss, having recorded the Nietzschean meditation Also sprach Zarathustra with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1958. Strauss meant to trace the development of Mankind from its origins, through various religious and scientific phases, to the idea of the Superman as laid out in Nietzsche’s rhapsodic text. With concertmaster Michel Schwalbe(1920-2012) Boehm leads a rousing version of the nine-section vision, from its C-G-C fanfare invoking the sunrise to the mysterious equivocation of the Night Wanderer’s Song, whose fateful bell-tones end in the tension between Nature (in C) and Humanity (in B). The exquisite string sound of the BPO achieves a glorious patina in the Of the Backworldsmen and reaches a convulsive joy in The Dance-Song, embellished by Schwalbe’s poignant potent violin. The orchestra enjoys a number of fertile climaxes, all of which illustrate the power and color of the BPO and deep string basses. A rendition of power and exuberant confidence, the Boehm experience certainly provides an exhilarating conclusion to an evening marked by Austrian and German musical genius.

Testament offers the two discs at a reduced price, certainly an affordable document celebrating a special moment from Salzburg.

—Gary Lemco