London Symphony Orchestra
Your reaction to this famous recording depends on whether you find the cutesy-pooh antics of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau charming or sickening. Certainly, there's no question that George Szell's accompaniments are exceptional, and the sound on this excellently remastered disc is very good. Personally I prefer a less interventionist approach, vocally speaking, to these stylized folk-poems, more along the lines of Ludwig and Berry with Leonard Bernstein on Sony, or the more recent Mackerras with Ann Murray and Thomas Allen on Virgin. Playing these recordings again, I find the two soloists less annoying than before-it may be I'm finally getting used to them. In any case, when singing alone, they're very good. If only they could have refrained from hamming it up in the duet songs-especially "Trost im Ungluck", and the positively obnoxious "Verlor'ne Muh". Oh well, nothing's perfect, and this is still an important recording in the history of the work. Mahlerians, to say nothing of fans of either the soloists or the conductor, will have to have it, regardless.
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Psychology tells us that the early impressions of a child are of decisive importance for his adult life, and that, with artists especially, such impressions have a most formative influence on their later work. A striking case in point is Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Mahler spent his childhood at the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava (Iglau) where from the people and the soldiers at the barracks he heard an untold number of folksongs and military marches; it is reliably reported that as a very young boy he knew some two hundred such tunes by heart. It is therefore no coincidence that the element of folksong as well as marches and military signals form such a conspicuous feature of his later symphonic style. Significantly, Mahler began his creative career with songs - the "Lieder und Gesange" (1880-1883) and the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" (1883-1885). Equally significant, his first four symphonies are either thematically based on melodies from his songs (Symphony No.l) or contain actual song movements (Symphonies Nos.2, 3 and 4). Even in his purely instrumental symphonies (Nos.5, 6 and 7) we find occasionally song phrases or quotations from his songs, not to mention march tunes and military calls scattered through them. As with Schubert, the song, the word-inspired lyrical melody, was inborn in Mahler; it never deserted him and found its highest degree of consummation in "Das Lied von der Erde" , which is essentially a symphonic song-cycle in six movements.
Mahler wrote altogether forty-four songs. Four of these form vocal movements in the Symphonies Nos.2 to 4, while the remaining forty are independent songs. Among them there are two cycles - the above-mentioned "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" to (mainly) his own words, and the Kindertotenlieder to poems by Friedrich Ruckert, in which Mahler continued the form of the song-cycle as established by Beethoven (An die feme Geliebte) and Schubert (Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise). The majority of his other songs are settings (twenty-one) of poems from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" , a collection of folk verses by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, published in three volumes in 1806 and 1808. This is a unique collection representing an anthology of German folk verses from three centuries which show a wide variety of character: religious poems and carols, working songs, historical romances, drinking and soldiers' songs, love and wedding songs and nursery rhymes. They are simple, straightforward, and of a child-like naivety, but many enshrine in allegorical form profound folk wisdoms. Mahler was the first to make extensive use of this material - in fact he may be said to have really discovered it for song composition.
The reason for this is that one aspect of his personality was most closely attuned to the engaging simplicity of feeling of these verses and to the unadorned, direct style of their language. Humour and sadness, quaint drollery and bitter seriousness, spookishness and playful innocence - these are the prevailing moods of "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" . It was as if the musical impressions of his early boyhood had, unwittingly, prepared Mahler for a congenial setting of these folk poems for whose various moods he finds the most appropriate musical expression - an exquisite gracefulness and charm for happy lovers, poignant sadness for unrequited love, diverting hilarity and merriment for the comic verses, and macabre, eerie music for poems of death and the sinister. The first time Mahler consciously resorted to "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" seems to have been round about 1887, in Books II and III of the "Lieder und Gesange" , though the first eight lines of the opening song in the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" are modelled on a poem from that collection.
The peak of Mahler's Wunderhornlieder are the twelve songs with orchestra written between 1892 and 1901 (published 1905) and first called by him Humoresken. These are largely in varied strophic form, sometimes combining with a contrasting middle section, which links Mahler with Schubert as does also the simple uolkstumlich song melody. And, as with Schubert, Mahler's vocal line is of a predominantly diatonic character and eminently singable. In his harmony the composer is very fond of 'primitive' fourths and fifths which invest a song with an archaic, old-world quality; on the other hand, he proves himself a child of his time by his tendency for free, unresolved appoggiature and an ambiguous tonality. As already mentioned, the Wunderhornlieder all have an orchestral accompaniment in which Mahler follows in the steps of Berlioz's Nuits dele and Wagner's Wesendonklieder. The employment of an orchestra of course invited Mahler to apply a certain measure of symphonic treatment - but to a far lesser degree than in his symphonies. Thus he avoids the complex contrapuntal theme combinations so characteristic of his symphonic style and always tries to match the simplicity and child-like innocence of the verses by a direct, straightforward setting. In the more extended songs (Reuelge, Der Tambourg'sell, Der Schildwache Nachtlied) he resorts at times to thematic work and it is, almost invariably, the orchestra that provides coherence and unity by an essentially identical accompaniment. Mahler was a consummate master in the use of a large orchestra in the service of intimate chamber music textures, and in the Wunderhornlieder he largely avoids massive tutti. deriving his most exquisite imaginative effects from the sound and colour of solo instruments or individual instrumental groups. To sum up, these songs are a locus classicus of Mahler's finely calculated, subtle and pointed orchestral language.
A word on his treatment of the text. For the sake of musical balance and symmetry he repeats certain words and even entire sentences, and alters the original order of the words. By the same token, he sometimes adds words of his own invention, like 'Gute Nacht!' in Der Tambourg'sell and the donkey's 'lja' and 'Kuckuck' in Lob des hohen Verstandes. Furthermore, he tones down or altogether omits ill-concealed sexual allusions, most conspicuously so in Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen which in the original describes a night of love while n Mahler it becomes a soldier's poignant farewell to his sweetheart before he goes to war. Mahler was a most adept versifier who would recapture the style of the Wunderhorn poems to perfection, and so we often find him substituting verses of his own for the original ones. For the sake of brevity he occasionally omitted some stanzas, as in "Das irdische Leben" and Verhr'ne Muh: and in order to achieve greater verbal vividness he would turn indirect into direct oration, as in the donkey's part of "Lob des hohen Verstandes".
-Mosco Carner, 1983