It took me a little longer than usual to come to an appreciation of this disc's special qualities. Perhaps defying convention, Lorin Maazel is becoming an increasingly objective conductor as he ages. It would be easy – but wrong – to hear his work as simply bland. Now he is rather like a jeweler, or maybe a watchmaker with a loupe stuck in his eye, attending to the music-making with infinite care and precision. For example, listen to the end of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" from the Rückert-Lieder and you will Maazel handing out the notes as if they were extraordinarily rare diamonds – one can almost hear his fretful frugality. Anguished Mahlerian spasms are kept to a minimum on this new release, and when they do occur, they're a result of the conductor's fine calculations, and not because he has been swept away by the music's irresistible flow.
The lovely Waltraud Meier's voice is appropriate for all three selections on this disc. A mezzo-soprano, she handles the low notes with confidence, and the high notes remain attractive, although they don't open into the glorious fullness that a real soprano would have given them. It came as news to me, and it is worth noting here, that "Das irdische Leben" and "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen," two of the four Wunderhorn songs offered here, were premièred by Selma Kurz, a coloratura soprano! (It appears that Mahler had a brief but torrid affair with her in the pre-Alma days.) Meier's singing is tasteful and restrained, which makes her a good match for Maazel. At this point, she is not the most insightful interpreter, and she doesn't force you to listen to the music the way that Janet Baker does, for example. Nevertheless, she is very good, and the laser-like coherence of her voice and her dead-on placement of individual notes are something that Baker never had. This is a fine instrument.
There is one moment in particular when Maazel and Meier surprise. "Das irdische Leben," a ghastly little song about child starvation and possible parental neglect, is sung with increasing anger, and the song's climax is definitely vehement, a quality unusual for both this song and these performers. Was a nerve touched here?
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle