Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Kindertotenlieder; Alma Mahler: Fünf Lieder. Julie Boulianne, mezzo-soprano; Ensemble Orford conducted by Jean-François Rivest; Marc Bourdeau, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Christiane Iven, soprano; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Michael Gielen. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.
An extraordinarily moving account of songs by both Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma, Julie Boulianne’s CD gives listeners the opportunity to hear some lieder they may not know at all (five of the 16 or 17 surviving ones by Alma Mahler) while hearing others in virtually unknown versions. There is some fascinating history underlying this CD’s chamber-music orchestrations: that of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was created in 1920 by Arnold Schoenberg for a group called the Society for Private Musical Performances, which in its brief existence (1918-1921) presented weekly chamber concerts of new music by such then-revolutionary composers as Stravinsky, Satie, Berg, Busoni and Webern – plus small-ensemble arrangements of pieces by Bruckner, Mussorgsky and many others, including Mahler. Unable to afford full-orchestra performances, the Society presented chamber-music ones that typically included string quintet, flute, clarinet, harmonium and piano. For the Mahler songs heard on this CD, Schoenberg added percussion, which he rightly considered vital to some of Mahler’s effects. The amazing thing about this chamber version is that it does not sound at all like a reduction: it has transparency, delicacy, balance and emotional impact that is different from and (thanks to Boulianne’s enormously sensitive vocal stylings and Jean-François Rivest’s equally nuanced conducting) in some ways superior to that of the full-orchestra version. The contrast that Boulianne evokes between the brief bursts of happiness in the four-song cycle, notably in Ging heut’ Morgen ubers Feld (whose tune became the main theme of the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1), and the more-extended sections of lamenting for love lost, is quite exceptional. Boulianne’s way with Kindertotenlieder is also remarkable. This is not a work that Schoenberg prepared for the Society: this version dates to 1991 and was created by Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. But de Leeuw, who founded Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble, is quite familiar with Schoenberg’s Society arrangements, and his version of Kindertotenlieder uses a similar instrumental ensemble and is every bit as effective at conveying the unremittingly dark tone of these songs as is Schoenberg’s version of the more variegated Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
The songs by Alma Mahler, a talented composer who put aside her own musical work in 1902, at her soon-to-be-husband’s request (he feared a competitive and difficult marriage if she continued composing), are presented here as originally written, with piano accompaniment; and they are charming, intense and well worth hearing. Alma Mahler is usually regarded as a femme fatale who had multiple affairs, married two prominent 20th-century figures after Gustav Mahler’s death (architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel), and became a valuable but unreliable source of much information on her first husband’s life and music. These songs show a side of her that makes her, if anything, an even more fascinating character. This set of five was revised with Gustav’s help when the Mahlers’ marriage was in crisis and Sigmund Freud himself urged Gustav to encourage Alma to start composing again; the songs were published in 1910, a year before Gustav’s death. Unlike Gustav, who liked to set folk poetry and often revised or expanded it in his compositions, Alma chose works by important and mostly contemporary German Romantic poets as her texts: the words to these five songs are by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), Otto Erich Hartleben (1864-1905), Gustav Falke (1853-1916), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), and Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). The many mood changes of the poetry are well reflected in Alma’s settings, and Boulianne sings all of them with exquisite sensitivity and a high level of textual understanding and involvement, while pianist Marc Bourdeau provides subtle and refined support. This is a thoroughly winning CD for anyone who wants to hear lieder performed at their most expressively communicative.
The new Michael Gielen-led recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn has some unusual elements, too, although it is not quite as exceptional as the Boulianne/Rivest CD. Gielen’s disc is distinguished by excellent sound and top-notch playing by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg – and by its selection of material. In addition to the songs usually heard in the Wunderhorn cycle, the CD includes Das himmlische Leben (the finale of Symphony No. 4) and Urlicht (from Symphony No. 2) – both of which use Wunderhorn texts. And for an instrumental interlude, Gielen presents the Blumine movement that Mahler included in Symphony No. 1 but later excised. The result of this arrangement is a particularly enjoyable and very well varied set of the Wunderhorn songs; but the vocal soloists, unfortunately, are not of the highest caliber, although they are perfectly adequate. Christiane Iven is expressive and clearly involved in the texts she sings, but her voice sometimes becomes harsh (in Das irdische Leben, for example). Hanno Müller-Brachmann has a sturdy voice and seems particularly to enjoy the satirical songs, including Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt and Lob des hohen Verstands; but he substitutes heaviness for drama in the more-serious pieces (Der Tambourg’sell, for example, has excellent orchestral playing but rather plodding vocal delivery). And in their duets, it sounds as if the soloists are singing past rather than to or with each other – there is little sense of connection between them. This CD is an assemblage rather than a fully integrated performance, and that may have something to do with its pluses and minuses: Müller-Brachmann’s solos and Blumine were recorded in January 2009, while Iven’s solos and the duets date to March 2011. The sound quality is quite consistent, and the arrangement of the songs that Gielen chooses is excellent, showcasing all Mahler’s mood changes and sprinkling the many military-themed lieder throughout the CD. The inclusion of Blumine as an interlude is a particularly nice touch: the music clearly partakes of the same spirit as the songs. It is only a degree of reticence on the part of the soloists that prevents this CD from being a truly outstanding one; but certainly it is very fine, and will not disappoint anyone interested in hearing an unusually structured and very well-played version of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.