March 23, 2017


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Roberto Saccà, tenor; Stephen Gadd, baritone; Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Alma Mahler: Lieder und Gesänge; Patrizia Montanaro: Canto di Penelope. Catharina Kroeger, soprano; Monica Lonero, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99.

     Mahler’s late works probe the post-Romantic era in ways that make it clear why Schoenberg and others of the Second Viennese School so admired them, yet they straddle the world of the 19th and 20th centuries in every way that matters – remarkably so, considering the fact that Mahler died before reaching his 51st birthday. Even when they are very much works of their time, as Das Lied von der Erde is of a time when artists of all types were fascinated by Orientalism, they are uniquely Mahlerian in sensibility and in the way they look inward while describing, in elegant musical as well as verbal terms, a variety of external scenes. Mahler designed Das Lied von der Erde for tenor and contralto or baritone, but the baritone option is rarely used – although Leonard Bernstein famously did so at a time when Mahler’s music was less firmly in the standard repertoire than it is today. Jonathan Nott, an exceptionally attentive Mahler conductor, chooses tenor and baritone for his new Das Lied von der Erde on Tudor, and uses the darker color that the combination imparts to this already-dark work to excellent effect. The voices of Roberto Saccà and Stephen Gadd complement each other very well, and their elocution styles are sufficiently different to maintain a distinction of sound even when Saccà sings in his low range and Gadd in his high one. Gadd’s is, on the whole, a stronger voice for this work, not only because of its evenness of tone throughout its range but also because Gadd uses it with such subtlety, to the point that parts of Der Abschied are essentially whispered – but without breathiness. Saccà is strongest in Die Trunkene im Frühling, conveying a sweeping sense of despairing assertiveness that makes this song, which in less-sensitive hands can sound like a ditty, into something altogether more meaningful, and a fitting setting to precede Der Abschied. Unfortunately, Saccà is overmatched by the opening Der Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, having difficulty projecting above the orchestra and struggling to give different shades of meaning to the repeated line, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” Part of the issue here is that Nott really punches this song to the utmost in pacing and sheer volume: the excellent Bamberger Symphoniker simply overmatches the singer. It is a thrillingly intense reading of the song, but a flawed one because it leads Saccà somewhat beyond his zone of excellence. The remainder of the performance, however, is uniformly well-balanced, sensitively and beautifully played as well as elegantly emoted. As a whole, this is a deeply emotional reading that connects with listeners on a visceral rather than intellectual level – with all the intensity that Mahler surely intended.

     Mahler moved on from Das Lied von der Erde, which he described as a symphony but hesitated to designate as his Ninth, to his actual Symphony No. 9, the last he was to complete. It is fashionable to see this whole symphony as an extended Abschied of its own, but it comes across more effectively when handled as a door to a new kind of music, the hints of which become even more apparent in the unfinished Tenth. Mahler in his Ninth is always on the verge of discarding tonality – except when he dips back into it for the work’s most emotive moments. He uses themes that are barely themes at all – except when he develops ones with amazing cleverness, as by transforming the grotesqueries of the third movement into the gorgeousness of the finale by simply (but not really simply) slowing down a theme to a substantial degree. He revisits his much-loved Alpine meadows and abandons them – but not before spinning a lovely second movement whose tempo is designated as being not merely that of a Ländler but that of a gemächlichen (leisurely) one. Mahler’s Ninth is a pivotal work, and even though Mahler did not long enough to show in detail what he was pivoting toward, Schoenberg and others certainly figured it out and developed their own direction partly as a result. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays the Ninth beautifully for Mariss Jansons on a new BR Klassik release, but Jansons himself is not fully equal to the earlier portion of the music. The first movement, in particular, seems formless if not gormless, the thematic drifting clear but the structure within which Mahler created the drift much less so. The movement meanders, but in fact it is a goal-oriented movement, albeit one whose goal is not fully clear until the finale. The remainder of this performance is, happily, better. The second movement is nicely paced and well-balanced. The third is somewhat too well-mannered: Mahler clearly asked that it be played Sehr trotzig, “very defiantly,” and indeed it is most effective when delivered on the verge of hysteria – but Jansons is altogether too refined for that, here holding matters in check in a way that he does not in the first movement. The result is that there is less contrast than would be ideal between the grotesqueries here and the beauties of the finale – although the finale as Jansons handles it is so beautiful that it makes up for pretty much every way in which the other movements fall short. Far from being music of despair or resignation, as it often seems to be, this is for Jansons music of acceptance, of acknowledgment of the inevitable and tremendous composure through understanding its approach. The very end of the movement and the symphony is ineffable here in a way that may well have listeners holding their breath for what comes next. There is no “next” here, of course, and only a partial “next” in the Tenth, but Jansons so whets the appetite for what might have been that the conclusion of this Mahler Ninth leaves behind a feeling of nothing less than awe.

     Mahler’s sometime muse and sometime despair, his wife, Alma, has a longstanding reputation as a femme fatale for her multiple affairs and her three marriages to artists of distinction (Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel). It is easy to forget, though, that she was herself a composer – whose work Mahler forbade her to continue as a condition of their marriage. Later realizing that he had erred, Mahler withdrew the prohibition and encouraged Alma, and she did produce a small volume of music of high but not outstanding quality – likely fewer works and lower-quality ones than she would have written if her muse had not been prematurely stifled before being set free again. The songs offered by Catharina Kroeger and Monica Lonero on a new Brilliant Classics CD are all 14 of those published during Alma’s lifetime (1879-1964). Mostly using the words of contemporary poets – including, in one case, Franz Werfel – the songs do not look beyond the Romantic era in their themes or their structure. Their lengths vary significantly, from one minute to five, but their underlying emotional themes are largely the same and fairly conventional – although the appearance in several of them of erotic tension and a sense of solitude may hint at Alma’s personal feelings. Only the first group of five songs was published during Gustav’s lifetime, in 1910; later came a group of four in 1915 and then a group of five in 1924. But not even the intervening war made for significant changes in Alma’s means of expression: there is considerable feeling in the songs, well communicated by the performers here, but there is simply not enough that is individual in the settings to show Alma as a composer of significance. The songs are interestingly paired with a very different sort of vocal work, a kind of quasi-operatic scena that imagines an extended monologue and tirade by Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, after the return home of her husband. Canto di Penelope is by Patrizia Montanaro (born 1956), and it uses the expected techniques of modern vocal composition, including atonality, declamation, Sprechstimme, and outright acting, all for the purpose of having Penelope complain to Odysseus about her lot during his decades-long absence and about the emotional and sexual neglect she endured through all the years in which he wandered about being heroic. Something of a feminist work, Canto di Penelope is not musically exceptional, and there is little surprising for the modern era in the attitudes it expresses. Its musical elements are subsidiary to its storytelling and, while they fit the words well enough, they are not particularly notable in themselves. The pairing of Montanaro’s theatrical scene with Alma Mahler’s often-dramatic miniatures encapsulating emotions is actually more interesting than is the music of either composer heard here.

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