December 28, 2017


Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Mahler: Totenfeier; Symphonic Prelude for Orchestra. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Chamber Symphony after the String Quintet; Mahler: Symphony No. 10—First Movement. Die Taschenphilharmonie conducted by Peter Stangel. Edition Taschenphilharmonie. $18.99.

Mahler: Das Klagende Lied. Simone Schneider, soprano; Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, mezzo-soprano; Torsten Kerl, tenor; Adrian Eröd, baritone; Wiener Singakademie and ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cornelius Meister. Capriccio. $16.99.

Claude Baker: Piano Concerto “From Noon to Starry Night”; Aus Schwanengesang. Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gilbert Varga and Juanjo Mena. Naxos. $12.99.

     The relationship between music and literature, particularly poetic literature, is a longstanding and frequently highly fruitful one. In the Romantic era and through to the present day, composers seeking to use music to evoke emotional responses have turned again and again to written material that has the same intent – heightening, broadening and expanding the meaning and impact of the original words through tone painting. It was this, not any overt “translating” of philosophy into musical form, that Richard Strauss sought in Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was inspired by Nietzsche’s great philosophical work but never intended as a musical “version” of it. Strauss was interested in the “evolutionary” nature of human beings as envisioned by Nietzsche – something that film director Stanley Kubrick realized in using Strauss’ music in connection with a mysterious evolution driver in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strauss’ interest was carried into music through the entirely fitting device of metamorphosis: if Also Sprach Zarathustra is to be about evolving, then the music itself must evolve. Vladimir Jurowski’s handling of the work with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin makes this quite clear in a new PentaTone recording. Jurowski latches onto Strauss’ musical motifs and carries them clearly through the entire performance, never allowing the very large orchestra to appear to be present solely for the sake of a big sound. Strauss did often use large orchestral forces for their sheer monumentality, but not in Also Sprach Zarathustra, and that makes it particularly interesting to hear the other works on this disc. Neither is at all well-known. Mahler’s Totenfeier is the first version of what would eventually become the opening movement of his Symphony No. 2 – but this is its original, standalone version, which has some fascinating connections with Richard Strauss. For one thing, Mahler wrote to Strauss about conductor Hans von Bülow’s extreme negative reaction to Totenfeier. For another, Mahler conducted Totenfeier as an independent work in 1896, the same year Also Sprach Zarathustra was first heard. Totenfeier is not quite the same piece as the first movement of the “Resurrection” symphony (the orchestration and some musical details differ); and the chance to hear the piece in its original form, with its literary tie-in to the concept of a struggling hero (from Symphony No. 1) being carried to his grave, is a welcome one. As for the final piece on this disc, Symphonic Prelude, it is a reconstruction by Albrecht Gürsching that comes with an intriguing mystery. The work dates to 1876, when Mahler would have been 16 and was studying with Bruckner – and there is actually somewhat more evidence that Bruckner wrote it than that Mahler did, although the attribution to Mahler is more frequent. The piece does have some Brucknerian elements, but those could have been included by Mahler under the influence of the older composer. The work is in C minor and in straightforward sonata form. Aside from some dramatically Mahlerian propulsiveness, there is not very much to the piece musically, although it is nicely constructed. It makes an intriguing conclusion to a disc steeped in literary allusion.

     Mahler and Bruckner also appear together on the latest fascinating release by the wonderfully named Taschenphilharmonie (“Pocket Philharmonic”) on the orchestra’s own label. Peter Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie have been reviving the performance concept of Arnold Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School at their Society for Private Musical Performances, which existed briefly in Vienna in the 1920s. The group’s notion was to present large-scale modern works by both well-known and little-known composers, using first-rate musicians – but only 12 to 20 of them. Schoenberg himself was among the arrangers of music for these performances; Stangel has now taken over that role for most of the music performed by Die Taschenphilharmonie, and he is responsible for both works heard on the latest disc. Bruckner’s Chamber Symphony is based on his little-known String Quintet and, indeed, sounds only modestly expanded in Stangel’s arrangement, which is for just 11 musicians. The quintet itself is not a major Bruckner work, but it shows nicely that the composer had a solid command of traditional chamber-music forms and could write expressive, well-proportioned music on a smaller scale when he was so inclined. The pairing here is with the opening movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, and here the arrangement does represent a significant alteration of the composer’s original: Stangel calls for only 16 players, with some interesting instrumental choices (one flute, one oboe, but two clarinets). The exceptional chamber-like clarity of the earlier part of the movement comes across especially well in this performance, but the monumental and highly dissonant chord for which the latter part of the movement is known sounds more Schoenbergian than Mahlerian here – which, however, is part of the point of performing the music this way. Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie provide remarkable insights into the structure of the works they play, including both of those here, and the result is an experience that is both unusual and exciting, especially so for those who know the music in its original instrumental guise.

     Mahler’s use of poetry, from his early Wunderhorn songs and the symphonies incorporating or based on them to his late Das Lied von der Erde, was pervasive and, indeed, crucial to his oeuvre. It took him a while, though, to decide just what literary material he wanted to use and how. Das Klagende Lied is not quite as early as the Symphonic Prelude, dating in its original form to 1878-1880. But it is still very early Mahler indeed, and calls for so large and complex an orchestra that its first version is almost never heard. In 1899, Mahler revised the second and third parts of the work, in which he was already looking for a form beyond that of traditional symphony, cantata or opera. The first and longest part was never revised, and is not really necessary, since it basically gives a more-extended version of the same story told in compressed fashion in the second and third. However, performances of Das Klagende Lied, which are infrequent, commonly use the original first part and the revised second and third, producing a rather ill-matched but frequently very impressive-sounding work that runs more than an hour and calls on significant vocal and orchestral forces. This hybrid version of the piece is the one conducted by Cornelius Meister on a new Capriccio CD, and while Das Klagende Lied creaks at the seams a bit – especially so when the early version of the first part is mixed with the later one of the second and third – this is still a work of considerable musical effectiveness, and one that fulfills Mahler’s interest in enhancing the impact of the poetry on which it is based. The story – the booklet commendably offers all the words in both German and English – is about two brothers who woo the same queen, who has both seek a token in the woods. The younger finds the required red flower but is killed by the older. Eventually a minstrel walking through the woods finds a bone, from which he fashions a flute. The bone turns out to have belonged to the murdered younger brother; when played, it tells the story of the older brother’s perfidy. The minstrel plays the flute at the wedding of the queen and older brother, causing sorrow and mayhem. In Das Klagende Lied, Mahler, who wrote his own text, combined a Grimm fairy tale with a work by Ludwig Bechstein. The moody and careful scoring brings out the lugubrious story well, and the performers under Meister handle the material with clarity and sensitivity, resulting in an effective musical exposition and expansion of the material.

     Today’s composers, such as Claude Baker (born 1948), continue to find inspiration in literary models, in some cases including ones that have inspired composers of earlier times. That is the case with Baker’s Aus Schwanengesang (2001), a wordless revisit to and reinterpretation of some of the poetic settings by Schubert that were collected after his death and published as Schwanengesang. There are 14 songs in the Schubert grouping, with words by three different poets. Six of the texts are by Heinrich Heine, and these are the ones that Baker selects for reinterpretation – at the same time rearranging them, for narrative purposes, into the order in which they originally appeared in Heine’s collection, Die Heimkehr (Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger, had changed the order). Baker turns the six poems – again, though, without words – into a five-movement suite that periodically dips into Schubert’s wonderfully melodic musical language just long enough to contrast it with Baker’s far harsher and more typically contemporary musical approach. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Juanjo Mena handles the material adeptly, and the contrasts between the often very dissonant material by Baker and the wonderfully melodious phrases by Schubert are certainly dramatic enough. But Aus Schwanengesang really hangs together and makes sense only for listeners who know both the original Schubert music and the original themes of Heine’s poems – without that knowledge, neither the intended narrative nor the surprising periodic entry of sweet melodies will make a great deal of sense. Aus Schwanengesang is coupled on this (+++) Naxos CD with another poetry-inspired work, Piano Concerto “From Noon to Starry Night” (2010). This is a five-movement work inspired by poems of Walt Whitman, again presented without words and therefore requiring some prior knowledge of Whitman’s work in general and these poems in particular for full effect. The five poems are “Beat! Beat! Drums! – Blow! Bugles! Blow!”; “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”; “Warble for Lilac-Time”; “The Dalliance of the Eagles”; and “The Mystic Trumpeter.” But the titles of Baker’s movements, although reflective of the poetry, provide somewhat different emphases: “Drum Taps,” “Silent Sun,” “Lilacs,” “Dalliance” and “Ecstatic Ghost.” The music here seems more fully Baker’s own, less self-conscious than that in Aus Schwanengesang, and the result is that the concerto is a somewhat more effective work. The musical language itself is less harsh, although it is prone to the stop-and-start pacing all too common in contemporary composition. The piano often assumes an obbligato role rather than one of leadership; in both circumstances, Marc-André Hamelin handles his part with skill. The orchestra, here directed by Gilbert Varga, also seems quite comfortable with Baker’s idiom. The fact remains, though, that unlike composers whose pieces incorporate poetry and other literary material so as to expand upon it, Baker’s works – at least these two – seem to be commentaries on poetry, requiring listener familiarity with their referents for the music to communicate effectively. That is a recipe for limiting one’s audience, not expanding it.

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