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Recordings

Bernarda Fink Sings Mahler Lieder [Harmonia Mundi HMC 902173]
09 Jun 2014

Bernarda Fink Sings Mahler Lieder

Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.

Bernarda Fink Sings Mahler Lieder

Anthony Spiri, piano; Gustav Mahler-Ensemble; Tonkünstler-Orchester

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902173 [CD]

$17.99  Click to buy

Fink’s approach to Mahler’s music commands attention for its attention to the details of the scores, as well as vibrant interpretations of the music. The recording stands well alongside the best of the existing discography and in some cases serve as touchstones for future performers as they explore this repertoire. Most of all, this exciting recording captures a performer fully engaged with Mahler’s music.

The program itself warrants attention because it intersects Mahler’s Lieder by offering selections from the composer’s early songs, his settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and also a generous sampling of the Rückert settings. The performances include versions for voice and piano, songs with orchestra, and also Arnold Schoenberg’s 1920 arrangement of the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen for chamber ensemble. On the surface, this may seem inconsistent, but the result is quite effective, as each track is convincing, with the aggregate reflecting thoughtful interaction of Fink with various collaborators, including her accompanist Anthony Spiri, the chamber musicians of the Gustav Mahler-Ensemble, and the conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada leading the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich. In each of these venues Fink’s voice is resonant and warm, and she sounds as comfortable within the intimacy of the keyboard milieu as she does with the support of a full orchestra.

A case in point is the song “Im Lenz” that opens the recording with the well-executed pianistic flourishes setting the tone for Fink’s entrance. While these three early Lieder (1880) have been known since the 1970s, when Dame Janet Baker first recorded these youthful pieces, this performance has the presence that others do not always give this music. The sensitive reading gives full voice to Mahler’s ambitious early work, and brings out the qualities that connect the style he used in these songs with the Lieder of the previous generation. This, in turn, sets the tone for what follows, with just one more early song, “Winterlied,” preceding the Wunderhorn setting “Ablösung im Sommer” (1885). The latter demonstrates Fink’s affinity with Mahler’s style, as she delivers the lines of the song clearly and without affectation. This allows the humor to emerge readily from the music, an element enhanced by Fink’s clear articulation of the text and persuasive phrasing.

Fink’s performance of the chamber-ensemble version of the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is at the core of this release, and the reading merits attention. The ensemble is exemplary, with the voice and instruments working together in ways that do not always occur in other performances. The rhythms are note-perfect throughout, with Fink’s resonant voice sometimes seeming like another instrument in the ensemble. The interpretation is memorable, with the sad resignation of the opening song transforming into the bucolic joy of the second. The opening of the latter song warrants close attention for its ringing sounds that not only carry the text, but also color it. Yet the third song, “Die zwei blauen Augen,” stands out as the musical and emotional core of the performance. The phrasing, articulations and dynamic levels combined to support the interpretation. In this piece Fink is absolutely in her element, and delivers a moving reading of this familiar piece. It seems fresh in her hands, with the expressive qualities never compromising the deft musicianship that Fink brings to this piece. In the middle section, Fink colors her voice to add nuance to the performance, a details that sets her apart from other Mahler singers. This helps to set up the reprise of the first section, and then to bring the song to a conclusion that lingers in memory, even as the final piece commences. The latter song is dramatic, with the histrionics some use thankfully absent her. The result is a satisfying conclusion to this performance. While it is possible imagine Fink singing this piece in Mahler’s original scoring, the remains a convincing performance.

The recording includes an equally strong performance of the cycle Kundertotenlieder in Mahler’s orchestration. In the opening song, “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn” establishes the tone of the piece from the outset, and her phrasing serving the text well. She captures the style of this piece convincingly and infuses the rest of the songs in this cycle with it. Just as“Wenn dein Mutterlein” has a certain elegiac quality, the final song “In diesem Wetter” is memorable for its sustained agitation, which resolves in the second half of the piece. The tempos for the latter are convincing, and make more sense than some historic performances which can be either too fast or too slow at the outset. Here, Fink’s performance seems geared to the concluding strophe, which caps the song and, with it, the entire cycle fittingly.

In addition to this cycle, the recording includes four of the five other of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, which Fink delivers with aplomb. “Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft” has the appropriate sense of delicacy that Mahler intended for the song. Likewise, “Liebst du um Schönheit” fits Fink’s voice well, with the negation of the text counterbalanced by her assured delivery of the melody. The tempo is somewhat brisker than occurs in some interpretations, a difference that makes musical sense. Such sense informs the approach to “Um Mitternacht,” which has a certain intimate quality that fits the piece well. As much as Fink’s sensitivity to dynamic levels is strong throughout the tracks of this release, it is particularly effective in this song, where the modulation of the voice supports the delivery. The transition to the final stanza of the poem warrants attention. The recording concludes with the iconic song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” which Fink presents with the dignity and musicality she has accorded of the pieces in this exceptional new recording of Mahler’s Lieder. As familiar as this music may be in 2014, this recording contains new performances that add to the existing discography and serve well to show the mastery Bernarda Fink brings to Mahler’s song.

James L. Zychowicz

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