September 16, 2010


Mahler: Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Christiane Oelze, soprano; Michael Volle, baritone; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Strauss: Four Last Songs; Rosenkavalier Suite; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Anja Harteros, soprano; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $12.99.

Tallis: Spem in alium; Lamentations of Jeremiah I and II; Videte miraculum; Dum transisset Sabbatum; Honor, virtus et potestas; Loquebantur variis linguis. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Newton Classics. $12.99.

     Mahler came up with something genuinely new in his major song cycles of voice with orchestra: no one had done anything quite like it before. In the case of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), the composer first mined the Arnim/Brentano collection of mostly naïve folk poetry for more than a dozen songs, then incorporated the themes of those songs into several of his symphonies and retained some flavor of the music throughout his entire symphonic output. Des Knaben Wunderhorn itself has fluid boundaries: there are usually 13 songs in the cycle (although the new Oehms recording adds a 14th), and Mahler left it to performers to decide on the song sequence and vocal range (he recommended a male voice but sometimes used a female one himself, and certain of the “dialogue” songs work particularly well with two voices). Christiane Oelze and Michael Volle have nicely complementary vocal qualities, and the sequence chosen here is a particularly apt one. The songs fall into thematic groupings and, within the groups, are sometimes lighter and sometimes heavier. The “military” songs are particularly difficult to arrange, and the greatest of them – “Revelge” – is almost impossible to follow with anything. This recording places “Revelge” 12th in the overall sequence, followed by “Das irdische Leben” and, from outside the usual Wunderhorn sequence, “Das himmlische Leben” – the finale of the Fourth Symphony. This works exceptionally well, making the final two songs into a coda of sorts to the first dozen. The “dialogue” songs are quite effective here, and even when a vocal choice sounds a touch odd (“Das irdische Leben” sung by Volle so Oelze can conclude with “Das himmlische Leben”), the overall effect is exemplary after a moment of initial uncertainty. Markus Stenz paces the songs very well and makes the orchestra an equal partner with the singers, not letting it overwhelm them but ensuring that it is no mere accompaniment. Mahler’s music adds a great deal to poetry that is, by and large, not particularly good, and this very well-recorded disc presents all the music to fullest advantage. Not the words, though: they are included in the booklet only in German. English speakers will really want to find a translation, since Mahler’s music so carefully complements and amplifies the text.

     Some composers after Mahler created equally powerful – if not equally extended – voice-plus-orchestra sequences. Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, one of the composer’s and the 20th century’s vocal masterworks, is an important example. The songs absolutely require a tremendously sensitive and vocally agile soprano, coupled with a highly sensitive orchestra, to attain their full effect (indeed, some of the most moving parts of the songs contain no words at all). The new Mariss Jansons CD of three live Strauss performances features the rather light, very pliable voice of Anja Harteros, who is at her best in the first two songs. “Frühling” has fine flow and a sense of wonder, while “September” showcases Harteros’ strong upper register and features fine blending between voice and orchestra. After the text of “Frühling” ends, the tenderness of the horns is especially affecting. The third and fourth songs are not quite as successful. Harteros sounds a bit strained in “Beim Schlafengehen,” although her voice climbs beautifully when singing of the spirit soaring in flight and the violin solo is movingly played by Andreas Röhn. “Im Abendrot,” last and longest of the songs, starts like a lullaby, and the orchestra’s portrayal of larks is lovely. But Harteros does not seem fully involved in the text – the performance is lovely in many ways, but lacks depth. The same may be said of the other two works on this CD – although depth is not a major requirement for them. The Rosenkavalier Suite actually comes off quite well, with smooth playing throughout and some nice attention to detail, such as the very tentative start of the famous waltz. Jansons makes this suite into a tone poem of sorts, with an emphasis more on its languid, long-drawn-out lyrical lines than on its faster and more glittery sections. Till Eulenspiegel is a tad less effective: it too is very well played, and again the flow of the quieter material is especially well done, but a sense of rough humor and of cutting loose is missing – the whole performance seems a bit too tightly controlled. Nevertheless, this is a very fine Strauss CD both instrumentally and vocally.

     The voice is everything in the Newton Classics release of music by Thomas Tallis. Listening to the purity of this 16th-century music after hearing the vocal elaborations of Mahler and Strauss is a salutary experience, almost like getting back to basics. Everything on this CD is religious in meaning and orientation, and everything has communicative directness and carefully modulated sound that well bespeak the solemnity of some topics (such as the two-part Lamentations of Jeremiah) and the tremendous hopefulness of others (such as Spem in alium and Videte miraculum). The Newton Classics label is reviving, in high-quality new releases, a series of recordings made two or three decades ago; this one dates to 1989. The skillful and well-modulated blending of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, comes through very clearly here, with Stephen Cleobury leading the singers in carefully paced and lovingly balanced church music. Indeed, it is scarcely necessary to know the meaning of the words – and certainly not necessary to know Latin – in order to feel and empathize with the beauty and careful order of Tallis’ very sensitive settings. Vocal music has certainly come an enormously long way since Tallis’ time, but this CD shows that even in a world where Mahler and Strauss took the voice to new heights, there is much-older writing that is every bit as lofty.

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