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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.
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
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
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