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Recordings

Gustav Mahler: Lieder
01 Jun 2006

MAHLER: Lieder

Among the interpreters of Mahler’s music in the late twentieth century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim stand out for their various contributions.

Gustav Mahler: Lieder

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Daniel Barenboim, piano.

EMI Classics 7243 4 76780 2 [2CDs]

$14.98  Click to buy

Fischer-Dieskau is known for his work with Lieder, which includes live performances and recordings as a singer, as well as his teaching, in which he has perpetuated his musicianship to the next generations of musicians. Barenboim’s work as a conductor, most recently with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has involved performing as a pianist. This CD makes available recordings both performers made together in 1978, in which Barenboim accompanied Fischer-Dieskau on 35 of Mahler’s approximately 50 songs. Included in this two-CD set are the entirety Mahler’s Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the set of Fünf Rückert-Lieder, and twelve of Mahler’s settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

While no longer actively performing and recording, Fischer-Dieskau remains an authoritative voice when it comes to Lieder, and those who wish to grasp his approach to Mahler’s songs may find an excellent representation in “Ich ging mit Lust,” one of the Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit. In this song, Fischer-Dieskau has taken a slightly slower tempo than some singers use, and this gives him the opportunity to bring out the melodic line and also to express the nuances of the texts. The diction in this song and the others in this recording is as clear and idiomatic as occurs in his recordings of Lieder by Brahms and Strauss. With the tempo fitting the text so well, Fischer-Dieskau makes the most of genre, which requires such a mutually expressive approach to exceed the limitations that occur when poetry is recited or melodies simply played. Likewise, Fischer-Dieskau brings out elements are sometimes passed over, such as the braying lines JKJKJKJK that Mahler accentuated more broadly in the later setting of “Lob des höhen Verstandes,” one of the songs in which he used texts from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn. At the same time, Fischer-Dieskau sensitively allows poetic meter to modify the agogic accents of the melody in the song “Selbstgefühl.” It is this very sensitivity to the text that makes Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation of the third song of the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” memorable for the drama and intensity often approached but rarely executed so well.

Hand in hand with Fischer-Dieskau’s vocal mastery is the expert pianism of Daniel Barenboim, who added nuance and color to the accompaniment without either exaggerating anything that is already present in the composition or adding elements that are not in the scores themselves. Pianists can take cues from the Lieder that Mahler orchestrated, which is in itself not only fair, but something that should be expected. In fact, it may be that knowledge of the orchestral version of such a powerful song as “Um Mitternacht” forces some pianists to emote unabashedly in that song, while Barenboim stops short of such overstatement.

Yet such delicacy is also part of Barenboim’s performances of Mahler’s earlier songs, which convey a freshness that sets this set apart from others. More than competent, Barenboim has set a standard from which other performances can take a cue. The sheer energy he exhibits at the opening of “Scheiden und Meiden” sets the tone for the singer to use in expressing the opening lines of the text. In other places, Barenboim defers to the voice by supporting it carefully, such that it is Gestalt of voice and piano that emerge in this uniformly fine set of recordings. Barenboim’s talent in the intimate setting of Lieder cannot be overestimated, particularly with regard to the details that are at the core of Mahler’s music.

When it comes to the settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the versions of the songs with piano accompaniment clearly deserve a place in the concert repertoire. Mahler intended both scorings for performance, without one superseding the other. The Orchesterlied was an idiom that Mahler used to fine effect in his music, yet he was not alone in writing for this genre, which includes works by Liszt, Wolf, Richard Strauss, and others. In pursuing works for this idiom, though, Mahler made use of the symphonic aspects of the orchestral accompaniment to set his scores apart from some of his contemporaries. While some of the Wunderhornlieder may be perceived immediately as symphonic because of their connection with his symphonies, the accompaniments of others contain scorings that resemble some of the passages in his symphonies. In executing these songs with piano accompaniment, though, it is too much to ask the pianist to emulate the orchestra, when the purpose is to support the vocal, which Barenboim does with finesse.

Take, for example, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” a piece that is known in at least contexts by the composer himself – a song with piano accompaniment, an orchestral Wunderhornlied, and its adaptation in a symphonic milieu as the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony – with a further use of the song by Luciano Berio as part of his Sinfonia. Given the resonances that come to mind with this song, Fischer-Dieskau and Barenboim deliver the Lied well with piano accompaniment, with the accompaniment idiomatically pianistic. Barenboim follows the score and avoids evoking orchestral effects that would, indeed, distract the listener. Yet in the intimate setting of the piano accompaniment, Fischer Dieskau treats the setting with subtlety and grace. The assonances that occur with the verb endings that conclude many lines in the first part of the poem help to reinforce the images of the various kinds of fish intermingling, as one word intersects another, yet remains clearly enunciated in Fischer-Dieskau’s precise phrasing.

Another familiar Wunderhornlied, “Revelge” may be familiar from Fischer-Dieskau’s earlier recording of the orchestral version (with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf), and yet the setting with piano accompaniment remains a convincing and effective performance of the piece. Sustained in mood, more like a dramatic scene than a typical example of Lieder, “Revelge” is not an easy song to perform because of the demands Mahler placed on the singer. In this interpretation Fischer-Dieskau and Barenboim interact well to create the mood and to draw on the musical and textual tension that is at the core of this piece. Other examples from this collection of settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are also effective for the masterful approach both musicians took to the music.

Fischer-Dieskau and Barenboim recorded these performances in the Siemensville Studio, Berlin between 5 and 10 February 1978, a necessarily brief to capture so much music and, thus, to achieve an interpretive focus. The recordings were digitally remastered in 2005, thus achieving a good quality of sound. Nevertheless some aspects of the sound are reproduced here, which includes a fine sense of the piano and the nuances Barenboim delivers. At the same time, the placement of the microphone by the voice gives a clear image of Fischer-Dieskau’s instrument. Yet from time to time the baritone sound overbalances the ensemble and sounds somewhat forward. It is never strident, but can be a bit ringing. As with any recordings, though, the ear can compensate for such unintended results, just as it is able to hear past the noise and static of inferior recordings, which this is clearly not. Yet it helps to put the sometimes highly present sound of the voice into the perspective of the recording and not allow its liveliness to affect the assessment of the model performance by both musicians. The reissue of this set of recordings is welcome for making available some fine performances that continue to merit attention.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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