It’s to Norman Lebrecht and his marvellous book, Why Mahler?, that I owe a debt of gratitude to for helping me to develop a deeper appreciation, enjoyment of and ultimately love for the music of Gustav Mahler. Before reading it, I had struggled with his symphonies and lieder, more focused on waiting for the final bars than listening to the music itself. As I have said in a previous blog, I also think there is something to be said about learning to appreciate and enjoy certain composers as you get older and experience more. For me, Mahler is in that category.
Having developed a deep love of his symphonies – bar perhaps the Fourth, which I still struggle with – I moved onto his lieder with renewed interest.
Mahler naturally bestowed on his lieder the same attention in terms of orchestration and structure but his attention to the words – and by this I don’t only mean the texts themselves which were always so carefully chosen – but also the actual sound of the individual words and syllables themselves, was remarkable.
In any performance therefore of his vocal works all these elements – the orchestral writing, the structure, the words and the sound colours deliberately created – need to be considered and balanced against one another to create a perfect fit. And therefore the singer, orchestra and conductor must be in total synch.
Naturally no performance or recording can be perfect. The best we can hope for is ‘definitive’. And even then more than one recording or performance can be so-called.
And again these choices can be – and are – subjective. It can depend not only on different individual expectations but also on mood, time and environment.
But nonetheless ‘definitive’ is a good yardstick when confronted by a recording that confounds and ultimately disappoints. As does this recording of Mahler lieder by Katarina Karnéus. Having listened to this recording over many weeks, I always felt myself drawn back to Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Fritz Wunderlich and Thomas Hampson.
Winner of Cardiff Singer in 1995, Swedish-born Karnéus has several lieder recital discs under her belt and her recitals of Sibelius and Grieg are particularly notable. Interestingly her very first recording accompanied by the estimable Roger Vignoles featured four of the Rückert lieder featured in the new recording, leaving out Um Mitternacht. I returned to these original performances – granted with piano rather than orchestral – for comparison.
Understandably the performance – piano as opposed to orchestral accompaniment – is different. However the key elements of any performance, particularly Mahler’s lieder, remain the same – clarity, diction, nuance and depth and a supportive accompanist.
The disc opens with Kindertotenlieder and I was immediately struck by the richer, more resonant timbre of Karnéus voice, ideally suited to this repertoire. Nun will sie Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, with it’s exposed opening and transparent scoring starts well enough with plangent oboe playing but as Karnéus unfolds the vocal line there is more than a little hint of imprecision in terms of tuning which is further marred by her use of vibrato. Vocally Nun seh’ Ich wohl is an improvement with Karnéus keeping a tighter control on the vibrato and unexpected blooms in her singing. Karnéus’ attention to the text occasionally seems overdone, as if she has confused pointedly annunciating almost every syllable as a means of interpretation.
Wenn dein Mutterlein is similarly distracting and towards the end at – O du, des Vaters Zelle – her intonation once again goes wayward.
Oft denk’ Ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen is performed well enough but comes across as dispassionate and almost bland, with no sense conveyed – as by Janet Baker for example – of empty hope.
The final song in the quintet, In diesem Wetter, ultimately betrays one of th key reasons why the performances are so uncompelling. The orchestra under Mälkki is unsympathetic and plain. They fail for example in managing the driving opening of this song, with its sforzandi and pointed wind and brass figurations in comparison to either Barbirolli for Baker or Boulez for von Otter.
And yet the performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are worlds apart in terms of performance and noticeably improved. The opening two songs, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht and Ging heut morgen übers Feld are more distinctively played by the orchestra and as a result Karnéus’ own performances seem freer and less constrained and rhythmically alert with no sense of any intonation problems. Similarly in Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer, the orchestra finds the necessary bite which in turn encourages Karnéus own performance. Here she finds the right balance of word colour and interpretation as opposed to the worrying heavy annunciation of Kindertotenlieder. As a result, the ending of this song is bitingly bleak.
The opening song of the Rückerlieder, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, seems to go at one hell of a pace but in fact in comparison with other performances – bar Baker and Christianne Stotlijn – this seems to be the performance norm. The orchestra continues to hold up its own side of the bargain, ably supporting Karnéus in this song as in the remaining songs of the cycle. For example, the gentle momentum of Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! is well controlled below the vocal and wind lines as is the fluidity required in the string accompaniment of Liebst du um Schönheit.
By reversing the order, Karnéus ends her Rückerlieder cycle with Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. With the former we are once again in the exposed orchestral world of the opening song of the disc, but the level of emotional intensity ism maintained almost throughout building successfully to In deine Hand gegeben! to the end of the song with Karnéus in fine voice.
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is for many the yardstick for any performance of this song cycle. And Karnéus does not disappoint with an expansive performance of this fine song. And while she may not quite achieve the serenity of Janet Baker, Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!, so delicately underpinned by the orchestra is a beautiful moment. And Mälkki succeeds in winding down the closing bars effectively.
It’s a shame that the opening performances of Kindertotenlieder mar what ultimately could have been a fine recital disc. Karnéus has the voice ideally suited to this repertoire – and I look forward to hearing her in Richard Strauss – and considering the quality of both the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückerlieder I have to wonder if it was a lack of rehearsal or empathy that leads to a disappointing Kindertotenlieder.
But ultimately this new recording doesn’t quite clinch it for me. While Katarina Karnéus turns in a competent performance of two of Mahler’s song cycles, ably accompanied for them most part by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki, the final impression is one of disappointment which has me reaching for other performances.