Friday, July 23, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 5: Songs and Songs

Mahler's first volume of Lieder und Gesänge comprises 5 pieces, but which of them are lieder and which are gesänge? Deryck Cooke begins his commentary on this collection rather dispritingly, saying "Only three are of real interest", and Donald Mitchell remarks that "The five songs... are not of equal importance". They both agree that the 3 decent ones are "Frühlingsmorgen", "Erinnerung", and "Hans und Grete", the last of which we've already encountered as one of the songs Mahler wrote for Josephine Poisl.
I'm not going to go into the details and relative merits of the various recordings of these songs that I've been listening to, as things would get very bitty. Suffice to say I've heard Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons (Hyperion) doing all 5 songs; 2 each from Christianne Stotijn/Julius Drake (Onyx) and Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber (RCA); and the mixed contributions on the EMI and DG "complete Mahler" sets.

"Frühlingsmorgen" ("Spring Morning") is charming; in it, the singer is encouraging a "sleepyhead" to get out of bed - "the bees and beetles are buzzing, and I've already seen your lively sweetheart". The song itself is rather sleepy, and you suspect the singer's rather sympathetic to whoever it is that's cosily tucked up. Some singers more than others highlight the lullaby nature of the ending.
"Erinnerung" ("Remembering") is, as its title might suggest, a nostalgic number, the singer thinking about some lost or failed love and how it inspires songs. It rises to a passionate climax before sinking down into sadness and finally a very dark conclusion on the piano. Donald Mitchell points out that this song provides an early example of progressive tonality in Mahler's music - it begins in G minor and ends in A minor - and cites Schumann as an influence.
And, indeed, the first song in Schumann's Der arme Peter begins with the line "Der Hans und die Grete tanzen herum", which brings us neatly to Mahler's "Hans und Grete" - which, as I've said, we've already encountered. I suppose I can interject here that the DG Mahler edition includes, rather oddly, 2 of Luciano Berio's orchestrations of these songs ("Frühlingsmorgen" and "Hans und Grete") at the expense of the original piano versions. I'm not sure what the thinking was there. Berio's versions are certainly worthwhile, though the orchestra seems unnecessarily large. But it did help me notice a little bit of accompaniment in "Frühlingsmorgen" that shows up in the second-movement trio of the Symphony no.1.

The two unloved songs here are "Serenade" and "Phantasie", both using texts taken from Tirso de Molina's Don Juan. Go on, admit that you don't know who Tirso de Molina is. There's no shame in it. But why are Cooke and Mitchell so dismissive of these two songs? Well, with "Serenade" it's pretty obvious. There's nothing wrong with it as such, but it just doesn't sound like Mahler at all. You could fancy that there's a few notes of accompaniment that prefigure the Symphony no.9, which would I suppose open up a whole critical can of worms, but by and large I think it's possible to love every single thing Mahler wrote except this one.
Poor old "Phantasie", though. It's a short ballad about a "fisher-maid" who "traps hearts" but whose own heart "reflects no love". It starts with a tune that makes me think of one of those fanfares from the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, although Mahler's instruction was that the piano should try to sound like a harp (it also reminds me of a guitar). Like "Serenade" it can be regarded as insufficiently Mahlerian, but I must say I like "Phantasie" a lot. It helps to have heard Christian Gerhaher's recent recording - he invests it with a darkness I don't hear elsewhere that moves it away from being a lied and into the realm of folk song. As I noted in my comments on the Piano quartet, there's a constant tension between what the professionals may consider good music and what your humble listener thinks.

And that concludes "Mahler: the early years". What will happen next? Will Mahler mature into a great composer who produces magnificent symphonies encompassing all of human emotion, or will he just spend the rest of his life writing incidental music to second-rate plays? Join us next time to find out!

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