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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
  • 5 Rückertlieder*
  • Kindertotenlieder
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
*Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
New Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli
EMI CDC747793 2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Luminous Rückertlieder; variable everything else.

Janet Baker probably figures on almost as many short lists of recent great singers as Fischer-Dieskau, although the general public never took to her as much as to, say, von Stade or Te Kanawa. To some extent, Baker managed her career idealistically. She would not appear in operas (the main venue for singers) without at least a month's rehearsal, and she decided to spend more time with her family than with us. In the 1960s, however, she was golden, especially in North America, and for a time it appeared as though she would become the best-loved British singer since Ferrier. Certainly, when I studied voice all those years ago, my teachers pointed to hers as the miracle we could never reach. She not only had a beautiful instrument, she phrased gorgeously.

Imagine my surprise when I read Deryck Cooke's scathing review of the LP of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder, both conducted by the eminent Mahlerite, Barbirolli. "Mannered" was one of the milder epithets. Cooke's piece caused such a stir that the same magazine (Gramophone) ran a second review by someone else (I forget whom), who first stated his initial disbelief at the earlier review and then went on to agree with Cooke. The American classical-music press, such as it was, echoed these sentiments. The performance has subsequently remained under a cloud. At the time, I believed it and never bought and thus heard the LP. Fortunately, BMG had a sale, and I must admit to curiosity. Barbirolli proved himself again and again in Mahler. Baker had made at least one superb Mahler recording for EMI - the songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the baritone Geraint Evans and led by Wyn Morris. I imagined that silvery voice of hers catching light in "Ging heut morgen" or grieving and consoling at the same time in "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn." I jumped in.

I can sort of see Cooke's point. I found the performances of the two cycles variable, but by no means a double disaster. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen gets the weaker reading of the two. In the orchestral opening to the first song, Barbirolli glosses over the rhythmic stumble of the clarinet-duo runs. At "Blümlein blau," Barbirolli sounds like he can't wait to get it over with, in odd contrast to Baker, who tries to seize the opportunity for radiance. The too-fast tempo, however, sinks her. "Ging heut morgen" suffers from the opposite problem. Barbirolli plods. The orchestral ensemble doesn't gel, as if the players follow two conductors (one for the left channel, one for the right) with almost the same beat. Whatever juice the song gets comes from Baker, except at the end, where both singer and orchestra glow. "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" shows Baker at her weakest, at least up to the slow section. She's pushing, with hammy scoops in the line, striving for great emotion she doesn't earn, but she doesn't get much support from the orchestra either. The stings and stabs from the brass don't bite with nearly the power of, say, Walter's reading on CBS. However, from "Wenn ich in den Himmel seh" on, we get a reading on an altogether higher plane. Here, singer and orchestra finally mesh, from the rapt vision in the sky of the beloved's blue eyes to the final shattered pouring out of rage and grief. The final song gets the most consistently successful reading by far. From a purposely low-key opening, the performers kick into a higher gear at the grim "funeral march" section ("Ich bin ausgegangen in stiller Nacht"), moving to the tender "Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum." Still, nothing is made of it as it winds down at the end. With Walter, one gets a melt into despair. I haven't checked the score, but I do wonder whether Barbirolli observes Mahler's tempo markings here.

As for Kindertotenlieder, let me say at the outset that I believe no one has surpassed Horenstein's performance with Rehkemper - a shattered, shattering cry over an emotional wasteland - so take my remarks with a large pinch of salt. I think the Barbirolli/Baker good but not the special it should have been, given these two performers. Furthermore, I prefer the darker vocal color of a baritone in these songs. Baker would have to come up with something special to change my mind, and she does, right at the outset. With her, most of the Kindertotenlieder become lullabies to dead children - grieving, nurturing, and healing all at once. Barbirolli's Hallé goes from bleak to warm, and the singer and orchestra emotionally match. This is Baker at her peak: a sound so noble it becomes other-worldly, and phrases marvelously long-breathed. The opening song's second line ("Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn!"), for example, seems to be taken in one go at cruelly slow tempo. It's not, but such is her sense of forward line that one passes over the breath she does take. "Wenn dein Mütterlein" stutters from slight rhythmic incongruities between singer and orchestra, as if Baker and Barbirolli couldn't agree to the tempo, but I'm quibbling with an emotionally spot-on reading. In "Oft denk' ich," Barbirolli shows us the link to the Wunderhorn songs in the vision of the children playing "on the heights, in the sunshine." Mountains, meadows, and sun seemed to call this type of music from Mahler.

The only place where the performers seriously miscalculate is "In diesem Wetter." Barbirolli sets a too-slow tempo. The orchestra is one big rhythmic mess, and the articulation is flaccid. Instead of the storm raging without and within, we get a kind of Great Dismal Swamp. In the finale, the singer again achieves a miracle of transcendent beauty, but the orchestral playing is simply too coarse for her interpretation. Baker tries to do everything herself, but even she needs a sympathetic ensemble. The reading of this one song keeps the account merely very good, rather than one of the very best.

I've heard the Rückertlieder excerpted (particularly "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen") more often than I've heard them as a group. As far as I know, Fischer-Dieskau, a performer normally considered definitive, recorded only four of the five, omitting "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder." I've begun to wonder whether Mahler himself actually considered them an integral whole. Certainly, unlike the other two cycles on this disc, they lack a narrative thread, but this is no criterion on which to judge the question. Henri de la Grange treats them as a set.

One gets musical adumbrations, here and there, of the magnificent Das Lied von der Erde. I think particularly of the opening strings' ramble in "Blicke mir" pointing the way to the violas in "Der Einsame im Herbst" and its delicate tread to "Von der Jugend," and of the end of "Ich bin der Welt," with its insistence on the second and sixth degrees of the scale, foreshadowing "ewig, ewig" in "Der Abschied."

I probably wouldn't have thought of these things without Baker and Barbirolli's help. The orchestra this time is the New Philharmonia, and at least this time out they surpass the Hallé. They not only play cleaner, but they're more alive to the shifts in the music. It's one of Barbirolli's last recordings, and he finishes on top with certainly the best recording of the Rückertlieder I've heard. This is everything I expected from a Baker-Barbirolli collaboration and more. Mahler's music I would describe as "psychological." It turns on a dime, as one emotion after another (often contradictory emotions) appears before us - one source of the music's considerable hold. Some have criticized Baker's singing as monochromatic, but I can't believe they've been listening all that hard. I, for one, can't think of a better "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" or, indeed, a better version of any song in this cycle. Again, her phrases go on past the point where many singers would begin to turn blue. Listen to the absolute security of "Im Zimmer stand / Ein Zweig der Linde," from "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft," taken in one breath. But beyond just getting through it, she puts the phrase through marvelously subtle color changes. I almost hesitated to point that out, because it's the norm of her singing. I marvel at her rapt joy in "Blicke mir" and "Liebst du um Schönheit" - to me, angels sound like this. "Um Mitternacht" is my favorite of Mahler's "night" songs, with resemblances to "Der Schildwache Nachtlied" and "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen." Baker goes from the spare, dark opening to the triumphant blaze of the end and carries you along without a bump, almost innocent as to how she got there. Of course, she can't do this entirely by herself, and Barbirolli must get the same credit. The beauty of their "Ich bin der Welt" leaves me without anything worth saying.

I can't emphasize this point enough: one of the landmark Mahler performances. If you love Mahler and you've never heard it, pick this up as quickly as you can. As great as you think Mahler may be, he's even better here. Unfortunately, EMI tends to get peevish with their catalogue by withdrawing CDs before people have the chance to find out about them. I got mine through BMG (order number: D112592).

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz