INKPOT#55 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.7. Kindertotenlieder. Terfel/Philharmonia/Sinopoli (DG Double)
Symphony No.7 in B minor
Song of the Night
Songs on the Death of Children**
Bryn Terfel baritone
conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Double 453 133-2
2 discs [51’34” + 62’27”] budget-price
Includes libretto in German with English and French translations.
by Derek Lim
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the “Song of the Night” is one of the most singularly rewarding of his works to listen to. Written when Mahler was on summer holiday (he called himself der Sommerkompanist; his main job was as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra), it is set in five movements, in a form similar to that of his Fifth Symphony, with a dark witch-sabbath Scherzo in the middle.
The Scherzo is flanked on both sides by Nachtmusik, or “night music”. The first Nachtmusik is a night walk with an army, similar to the first movement which is like a night-patrol, starting in Mahler’s peculiar style with a single tenor horn solo. The second Nachtmusik is on the other hand a true symphonic adagio, and is a serenade in Venetian style.
The fifth movement is a sudden move into brightness and sunlight, from all the nighttime-ness. A wild rondo composed in a cynical and ironic way, it features many unusual things, such as looking backwards into past ways of composing, pseudo-classicism, and above all things a huge orchestral tutti as a ritornello (repeating theme). Mahler scholars of the past have found trouble integrating the last movement together with the rest of the symphony because of its very strangeness.
One consistency in Mahler’s orchestration is that though he uses strange instrumentation, like mandolin and furious pizzicati on the strings, he never uses them all together all the time, reserving them for chamber-like settings. The Seventh Symphony is similar to all the others in this respect. On with the present recording then.
This reissue of Sinopoli’s recording of the Seventh is a good buy. The interpretation is strange enough to warrant being in every Mahler enthusiast’s collection. Straight from the start, the texture of the first movement is altered significantly, with the strings and their dotted rhythm emphasized, so that they become part of the whole picture. The tenor horn part is well-played, and the orchestra’s playing itself couldn’t be better (though if one wanted to be particular, the brass does not mesh together too well).
Many orchestral details are picked out and altered, and Sinopoli’s interpretation is on the wilful side, pushing tempi here and there and everywhere. Sinopoli (right) paces the first movement well, but I thought by smoothening things out too much the episodic quality of the music was lost. In terms of tonal color, I think Abbado did better with his CSO recording (this listener is still awaiting his BPO recording).
The second Nachtmusik is taken at the slowest pace I have ever encountered – even Bernstein’s (DG 419 211-2) is swifter by a few minutes. But very beautiful all the same. The middle Scherzo is colourful, and not at all frightening (but then again I never thought the movement was nightmarish at all). The last movement, Rondo-Finale, is taken heroically, but not executed or engineered as well as Bernstein’s, or Horenstein in his wonderful recording.
Overall the shape and proportions of his interpretation work out fine, but there is no sense of completeness as a work. A sense of spontaneity is lost, indeed the whole recording of the work seems very wilful. But being wilful can be a valid view of what is after all Mahler’s toughest nut to crack. Scherchen in his Toronto Symphony Orchestra reading (Music and Arts CD695) is the ultimate in excitement, and the orchestra is pushed to virtuosity. But perhaps in the end the simple view of the work is the best.
When Horenstein was offered a contract to record Mahler with EMI towards the end of his life, he said that he would record something entertaining for the audience – such as Mahler’s Seventh. This contract was later cancelled, by the way, and replaced by his fine but very angry reading of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique Symphony”, available on Royal Classics.
I haven’t mentioned the sonics — wonderful dynamics, crisply recorded.
The Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”) are a lieder cycle, in other words a collection of German art-songs. Originally from the catalogue of 500 poems that Friedrich Rckert wrote after his own children passed away from sickness, these were set to music by Mahler, who’s preoccupation with death led him to write many works dealing with the subject. The cycle is no different in that sense.
Above/left: Mahler with one of his daughters in 1909
(Some say it is Anna Justine Mahler, others say it is Anna Maria).
Starting with the tragic Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n (“Now will the sun rise so brightly”), followed by the vaguely comforting but disturbing Nun seh’ ich wohl (“Now I know well”), then Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegagen (“Often I think they have just gone out”). Wenn dein Mtterlein (“When your dear mother…”) is heart-wrenching, and the last In diesem Wetter (“In this weather”) starts with pain and anguish in a bitter orchestral storm but ends in transfigured peace, where the children are protected by God’s hand, as if in their mother’s house – “von Gottes hand bedecket, sie ruh’ als wie in derMutter Haus”.
Coincidentally and tragically, Mahler’s own first daughter Anna Maria died of illness at the age of six, after these Lieder had been written. Prophetic? Perhaps.
The Kindertotenlieder are written for either mezzo-soprano or baritone. Here we have Bryn Terfel the baritone sing for us. Unfortunately these lieder are not for the Mahler-insensitive singer, in that one needs to have great subtlety in portraying the tragedy behind the music, or it can be a parodying account of it. The words mean a lot to Bryn Terfel, who obviously understands his German, but the singer must not overempasize every word – which Terfel here does, and in so doing detaches himself from the work.
Listen to Janet Baker with Barbirolli, both superb Mahlerians; or Christa Ludwig, or Kathleen Ferrier with Bruno Walter; or Klemperer, or the great Fischer-Dieskau and you will understand what I mean. The lied is not a dramatic device – it should not be sung like opera. I’m afraid that is just what Terfel does and in that sense he misses out on the idiom of the lied form.
Mahler’s lieder were written with the orchestra rather than piano accompaniment in mind, but still remain the intimate affairs that speak straight from the heart, and should be sung as such. Even the Song of the Earth has the lied element. To sing straight from the soul to the listener and to move him, and at the same time not having to bother about technique – that is the great challenge for the Mahler singer. Listening to the recordings, I have to say that Terfel’s fulfills the first requirement, but I seriously doubt his grasp of the former.
Well, get the set anyway – two CDs for the price of one full-price, a 50% cut courtesy of Deutsche Grammophone from its original release price, one can’t go too far wrong. Buy the set for the Symphony, keep the lieder as reference to listen to sometimes, and buy Horenstein’s recording of the symphony, or Scherchen’s as a comparison. In conclusion, a good buy, pity the filler couldn’t be praised more highly.
Other digital recommendations:
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle. EMI CDC7 54344-2. Full-price.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly. Decca 444 446-2. 2 discs. Full-price. (+ Diepenbrock: Im grossen schweigen )
“Can February march? No, but April may… working our way collectively to the middle of the year… enjoying yourself yet?” says the corny Derek Lim, who has 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 versions of Symphony No.7 now…