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CLASSICAL  March 2005

CLASSICAL March 2005

Subject:

A Chamber Das Lied

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 21 Mar 2005 08:47:17 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (144 lines)

                    Gustav Mahler
  (arranged by Arnold Schoenberg and Rainer Riehn)

* Das Lied von der Erde

Monica Groop (mezzo), Jorma Silvasti (tenor), Sinfonia Lahti Chamber
Ensemble/Osmo Vanska
BIS CD-681 Total time: 61:04

Summary for the Busy Executive: Mahler concentrate.

For some reason - destiny, Mahler-in-the-air - I've heard four performances
of Das Lied, new to me, in the past month: one live concert, one radio
concert, and two recordings.  The live concert, on the eve of the Iraqi
elections, was scheduled to be led by Klauspeter Seibel, a conductor who
hasn't had nearly the career he deserves and who shines in Mahler, but
Homeland Security kept him out of the country, as it did the scheduled
Quebec mezzo.  I doubt these two were specifically targeted, but then
again United Statespersons have a hard time in general distinguishing
one furriner from another.  Probably the only foreign nationals issued
visas were members of the Saudi royal family.  Anyway, the show went on,
and terrifically too, with Ohioan Gerhardt "Where You From, Boy?"
Zimmermann on the podium and a fabulous West Coast mezzo named Jane
Dutton, both of whom stepped in at the last minute.  Dunkeln ist das
Leben, to quote somebody.

All this is to say, I suppose, that Das Lied - that long, strange hybrid
of symphony and song-cycle, considered for so many decades turgid, boring,
and basically unlistenable - has become a necessary part of the repertoire.
Conductors and soloists had better know it and have it ready if they
want to work.  As you know, Mahler chose his texts from a collection of
German translations of Chinese poetry - Hans Bethge's Die chinesische
Floete, pretty much forgotten these days, but enormously influential in
its time.  One can argue Bethge's influence on Gottfried Benn and Hermann
Hesse, for example.  Several prominent composers based works upon Bethge's
translations, but Mahler's is the only one to have unmistakably survived.

However, the version on this disc has its origins in the wilderness years
of Mahler's critical reception.  Early in the previous century, Schoenberg
ran a "new music" subscription-concert series for connoisseurs.  He and
others, including Webern, often made chamber arrangements of symphonic
works, since they couldn't afford a full orchestra.  Schoenberg's
arrangement, left incomplete and then finished in the Nineties by Rainer
Riehn (the notes don't say how much Riehn needed to contribute), calls
for string quintet (string quartet plus double bass), woodwind quintet,
piano, "large harmonium" (realized in this recording with a synthesizer,
I believe), celesta, and seven percussion instruments, in addition to
the two soloists.  I have no idea whether any part of Schoenberg's
arrangement was played in his lifetime.

The CD poses two main questions.  First, how good is the arrangement?
How much Mahler comes through?  Mahler orchestrated from a particular,
highly individual palette, which becomes an essential part of his symphonic
"world." On the other hand, Schoenberg tended to orchestrate from his
own palette.  For example, his orchestration of the Brahms g-minor piano
quartet doesn't sound like Brahms's orchestra, but like Schoenberg's.
His string-quartet concerto, after Handel, delightful though it may be,
has as much relation to its originals as a pimpmobile to a plough or
as Stravinsky's Pulcinella to "Pergolesi." This time out, however, he
disciplines himself to reach the goal.  Uncannily little of the work's
impact dissipates.  You don't miss, for example, the brass; the French
horn and, occasionally, the oboe - both from the wind quintet - are all
Schoenberg apparently needs.  The piano and the harmonium fill in the
texture normally worked by the massed strings.  You don't get all the
sonic weight, of course, but Mahler mostly isn't about mass, but about
counterpoint and color.  If you look at the score, you see a lot of rests
in the parts.  More often than not, Mahler needs his large orchestra
to produce a succession of different small ensembles, rather than mere
volume, as in Das Lied's own "Von der Jugend." Schoenberg captures the
salient colors of those groups.  You feel as if you hear the essence of
Mahler's musical thinking.  The counterpoint, though not so in-your-face
as with the Fifth or the Eighth, nevertheless belongs to the bones of
the work.  Both Donald Mitchell's *Gustav Mahler* and Michael Kennedy's
*Mahler* point out Mahler's extensive use of pentatonic themes, evoking
Western ideas of Chinese music.  Though it gives a lovely sound, pentatonics
(think of music played only on the black keys of the piano) produces
stasis.  It can't modulate, and thus, in the context of symphonic music,
cannot give you the sense of transformation.  For this reason, the
composer who resorts to it - Mahler or Vaughan Williams, for example -
never uses it in its pure form.  Mahler finds a way to wed pentatonic
themes to his post-Wagnerian chromaticism and achieve the rhetorical
movement that he needs.  The chromaticism gives the music the necessary
shove.  The pentatonicism helps lighten the contrapuntal texture.

Second, how good is the performance?  The work - unlike, say, Beethoven's
Fifth - is by no means sure-fire, even in the hands of professionals.
I have squirmed through stodgy accounts indeed of Das Lied.  This isn't
one of them.  But the problems Mahler posed to his executants are by no
means trivial.  For example, I've never quite understood why any tenor
agrees to take on the role, since - no matter how well he does - the
mezzo almost always obliterates any memory of him, simply because she
sings "Der Abschied," the long, last beautiful word.  Neither singer,
however, can cruise.  I can think of songs *as* taxing - both technically
and interpretively - on the performer, but none more so.  The mezzo can
make a great impact, but she can also sink the piece - "Der Abschied"
lasting roughly half the entire work.  The instrumentalists normally
can't hide in the full-orchestral Das Lied: the textures are too clear.
This becomes of even greater concern in the chamber version.

Jorma Silvasti, the tenor, has a bright, slightly reedy tone, rather
than the big heroic voice required for the fanfare opening of the symphonic
version.  Nevertheless, it does match the reduced forces of the chamber
score and settles into a nice fit in the allegretto movements, "Von der
Jugend" and "Der Truckene im Fruehling." In "Der Einsame im Herbst,"
mezzo Monica Groop shows that she can communicate more directly than
Silvasti, which foretells good things to come in "Der Abschied." She is,
indeed, a superior Lieder singer.  However, the timbre of her voice,
while certainly not ugly, doesn't have that unearthly beauty - think
Ferrier or Baker - which utterly enraptures.  You don't hear it and weep.
It forces you to approach the music in a more conscious, deliberate way.
This does not mean that she doesn't have her moments.  With the sudden
turn toward radiance in "Der Einsame" at the words "Sonne der Liebe"
("sun of love") she and the ensemble manage to lift and lighten the
heart.  In "Von der Schoenheit," she's requisitely delicate in the "frame"
sections and breathless with excitement in the off-to-the-races middle.
But, again, "Der Abschied" more or less makes or breaks the account.
I'll go against expectations here and plainly state my favorite
interpretation: Alfreda Hodgson's in Horenstein's 1972 recording,
incidentally my favorite account of the entire work.  Baker does an
overwhelming "Der Abschied," but the orchestral work under Haitink plods
for me.  I've never warmed to Ferrier, although I can certainly understand
her appeal.  In other words, I admire without love. I like Walter and
Mildred Miller overall, but Miller doesn't really rise to the occasion
as Baker, Hodgson, and Ferrier surely do.  Groop achieves a more modest
effect, an intimacy without giving you the deeps of sorrow.  Her voice,
a relatively small one, limits her here.  One doesn't get the sense of
power in reserve.  On the other hand, it suits the orchestration, and
she knows enough not to push.

The real stars here, however, are Vanska, the Sinfonia Lahti chamber
players, and of course the arrangement itself.  I like it fully as much
as - perhaps more than - the Herreweghe recording on Harmonia Mundi,
my introduction to the arrangement.  They get the clarity, suggest the
mass, and run the work's huge emotional range.  The ensemble playing
is beautifully satisfying all by its lonesome.  They are devastating
in "Der Abschied," contributing more to the movement's power than even
the mezzo.  However, above all, this is a team effort. The end of "Der
Abschied" - from "Ich wandle nach der Heimat" on ("I turn to my own
country"), drills inside you because everything - instruments, singer,
interpreter - works in perfect balance.  In short, despite the reduced
forces and the luckless tenor, I regard this as an account of the first
rank.

Steve Schwartz

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