Friday, January 10, 2014

Approaching Mahler's heartbreaking "Kindertotenlieder"

For the final stanza of "In diesem Wetter," the last of the Kindertotenlieder, Mahler switches from minor to major


Thomas Hampson, baritone; Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, October 1988
In this weather, in this storm, in this bluster,
they're resting as if in their mother's house,
not frightened by any storm,
by God's hand protected,
they're resting as if in their mother's house.

by Ken

I'm trying to think -- among the infinity of loose ends and gaps we'll leave when the tent folds up -- which few among them we might still deal with. It seems rather hopeless, but it has occurred to me that for all the Mahler we've listened to (I always want to compile a master list, but it's a big job; would it be of interest to anyone?), we haven't done the song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).

However, we have done the final song, "In diesem Wetter" ("In this weather"), in a December 2011 post devoted to "The old minor-to-major switcheroo as practiced by Mahler, Schubert, and Donizetti" (preview and main post), in which we listened to the opening song of Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), "Gute Nacht" ("Good night"), and Nemorino's haunting aria "Una furtiva lagrima" ("A furtive tear") from Donizetti's Elixir of Love in addition to "In diesem Wetter."


TO APPROACH THE KINDERTOTENLIEDER,
WE'RE GOING BACK TO "IN DIESEM WETTER"

And naturally we're going to start with the whole of the Hampson-Bernstein performance. Hampson's Mahler collaboration with Bernstein produced probably his most winning recordings, and of course Lenny B had this music in his bloodstream -- this is the most searching performance of the song I've heard. (Note that in Lenny's performance, the ineffably beautiful orchestral postlude takes a full two minutes.) As for the other recordings we're going to hear tonight, I wrote in 2011 that, as in the case of Schuber's "Gute Nacht,"
"In diesem Wetter" especially challenges the singer to hold the audience in the early, pre-switcheroo stanzas, with the added technical difficulty that Mahler puts so much crucial writing at the bottom of the singer's range (whether male or female). Even that peerless Mahler singer Christa Ludwig (whom we've heard sing most everything Mahler wrote that's singable by mezzo-soprano) can be reduced to something close to barking down there.

Nevertheless, I've included both Ludwig's 1958 and 1974 recordings; despite the 15-year gap, they're similar in a lot of ways, but also different. Then, with due respect to Thomas Quasthoff, who delivers a fine performance, what I especially like about this one is the raging storm that conductor Gary Bertini gets into the orchestral part. The performance by Andreas Schmidt, whom we last heard singing Wolfram in Wagner's Tannhäuser, seems to me beyond reproach; note that he can handle that low-lying writing.

Best for last. I've already described José van Dam's Mahler's CD containing the Kindertotenlieder, the five non-Kindertotenlieder Rückert settings, and the two big Des Knaben Wunderhorn "military" songs that were published along with the latter, as one of my all-time best-loved records, and his performances were the featured offerings when we focused on those military songs, "Revelge" and "Der Tamboursg'sell." It's not just that van Dam sings the song more beautifully than anyone else I've ever heard, which he does, with fuller and more expressive vocal control over the full range of the writing, but that he lives the whole thing so grippingly.

MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children):
No. 5, "In diesem Wetter" ("In this weather")

In this weather, in this bluster,
never would I have sent the children out.
They were taken out.
I had nothing to say about it.

In this weather, in this storm,
never would I have sent the children out.
I would have been afraid that they would catch sick.
Those are now idle thoughts.

In this weather, in this horror,
never would I have sent the children out.
I worried they might die tomorrow.
That's now not to be worried about.

In this weather, in this bluster,
never would I have sent the children out.
They were taken out.
I had nothing to say about it.

In this weather, in this storm, in this bluster,
they're resting as if in their mother's house,
not frightened by any storm,
by God's hand protected,
they're resting as if in their mother's house.

[switcheroo at 3:06] Thomas Hampson, baritone; Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, October 1988

[switcheroo at 2:31] Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra, André Vandernoot, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 18, 1958

[switcheroo at 2:28] Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded May 1974

[switcheroo at 2:47] Thomas Quasthoff, baritone; Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gary Bertini, cond. Phoenix, broadcast performance, Jan. 22-23, 1993

[switcheroo at 2:45] Andreas Schmidt, baritone; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jesús López-Cobos, cond. Telarc, recorded Apr. 30-May 1, 1991

[switcheroo at 2:43] José van Dam, bass-baritone; Orchestre National de Lille, Jean-Claude Casadesus, cond. Forlane, recorded April 1986


IN THIS WEEK'S SUNDAY CLASSICS POST:
THE REST OF THE KINDERTOTENLIEDER


Since the subject of the minor-to-major switcheroo has already come up, let me quote what I wrote in 2011: "This image of the children as if safely lodged in their mother's house may perhaps bring the singer momentary consolation. For the audience, the gap between this moment of illusion and the horror of reality may be unbearably painful." Sunday we're going to hear "In diesem Wetter" again, this time as the climax of the Kindertotenlieder cycle.
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