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In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.
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30 Aug 2009
Gustav Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Following from the fine collaboration between Stephan Genz and Roger Vignoles on an ambitious collection of various sets of Mahler’s Lieder (Hyperion CD 67392), which includes some of the composer’s early settings of poetry from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the present recording contains thirteen later settings from that source.
Some of the most familiar of Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lieder, these are also among the most challenging. From the opening piece, Mahler’s setting of Revelge, the dynamic interaction between the two performers is evident. This is a vibrant rendering of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the versions for voice and piano, a setting which requires the idiomatic approach Vignoles uses for the accompaniment and the nuanced tone Genz uses to evoke a sense of chamber music. Lacking the sonorous orchestral accompaniment, the singer is more exposed, and this allows Genz to display his vocal finesse well.
If the opening selection in this recording, Revelge, can be stentorian in some performances of the orchestral version, it requires the full-bodied intensity Genz uses to evoke the military music evoked in this setting. Here Vignoles’ lively approach to the accompaniment support’s the musical structure well, especially in the use of crisp articulation to suggest the percussive aspect of Mahler’s musical gestures. In contrast to this more extroverted song, the interpretation of Rheinlegendchen is wonderfully subtle, and Genz’s phrasing of certain lines is memorable for the nuances he brings to a song which deserves such attention to detail.
Vignoles makes use of a similar subtlety in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a setting which benefits from the restraint the accompanist evinces, so that the vocal line can accumulate intensity in its execution. Here Genz’s sustained pitches are quite affective, and his sometimes hesitate approach to various lines is something difficult to achieve well with the full orchestra on stage. In the close ensemble with Vignoles, details like these emerge easily and to the benefit of literature that needs to be heard in performances like these. The delicacy Genz uses in the lines “Bein meinem Herzallerlieble” and “O Lieb auf grüner Erden” is touching, as is the warm intensity he brings to the sequential passage at the phrase “Sie reicht ihm auch die Schneeweiße Hand.” At the end Vignoles aptly bring out the reference to the folksong “Bruder Martin,” a reference wholly Mahlerian and yet absent from some performances of the piece.
Such synergy occurs in the Erlkönig-like setting of the poem “Verspätung” as Das irdische Leben (the counterpart of Das himmlische Leben, which became the Song-Finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) With its perpetuum mobile accompaniment, Mahler brings out the reversal at the end, where the persistent child succumbs to the hunger its mother will not sate. In this performance Vignoles allows the accompaniment to bring details to the song, and thus supports Genz well. A similar kind of accompanying figure is part of the structure of the following song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, and the gesture in this piece reinforces the text in reference to recalcitrant audience of unrepentant fish, the metaphor for humanity’s failure to heed even the sermons of saints. In this performance the tempos are slightly slower than some take, and this allows a welcome clarity to come to the fore in the accompaniment - the vocal line benefits from the clear enunciation of the text, so necessary to bring out the irony of the piece.
Vignoles and Genz approach Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? in a similar way, and in their execution effect some fine accelerandos that accentuate the text and culminate in an exemplarily clear and even rendering of the vocal line that brings the piece to its conclusion. The use of tempo modifications emerges nicely in Trost im Unglück in which Vignoles and Genz demonstrate a solid interplay necessary for the song. Tempo also affects the way in which Vignoles makes the dissonant tones of the accompaniment figures of Verlorene Müh’ serve as a kind of commentary on the text, which Genz, in turn, intones with appropriate earnestness. Genz’s vocality culminates in a persuasive reading of Urlicht. Removed from the context of Mahler’s Second Symphony, where it serves as a vocal prelude to final movement, *Urlicht *can be challenging. Yet this performance by Genz and Vignoles is a strong reading of the piece, which shows both performers well.
The sound quality of this Hyperion recording serves the performances well, especially in rendering the range of dynamics and articulations Vignoles achieves on the piano. The sometimes close recording sometimes catches a breath from Genz, but it also serves to bring out his fine diction and nicely sustained pitches. It is a solid contribution which deserves attention. As to the presentation itself, Vignoles notes are reminiscent of the informative ones he contributed to his set of the complete chansons of Gabriel Faure. It is good to see his reference to Goethe’s comments about Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an essay which connects the anthology to the generations before Mahler who enjoyed its contents. The texts of the songs are reproduced with translation in English, as found in the previous release of Mahler’s Lieder by these performers on this label.
James L. Zychowicz