Urlicht O Röschen rot [5'00]
Roger Vignoles writes in his booklet notes that ‘to enter the world of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs is like opening a picture book. Each page gives us another character, another fairy tale, another episode, whether happy or tragic, in the tale of human existence … such is the consistency of its musical tone that Mahler achieves a remarkably intense evocation of human life in this collection, portrayed with empathy, humour and compassion’.
Some of these celebrated songs are much more familiar in their orchestral versions and pose a great challenge to the pianist. However the piano’s capacity for quasi-orchestral sonorities and textures was an essential element in the evolution of the Lied as an art form, allowing as it did for a far wider range of symbolic reference than would have been possible with any other accompanying instrument, and Roger Vignoles achieves a great level of intimacy within this framework.
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Gustav Mahler once famously remarked of his symphonies (to Sibelius, in 1907) that they were meant to be ‘like the world … all-embracing’. But as we noted in the essay accompanying the previous CD of Mahler songs (CDA67392), it was from a very particular world that he drew the inspiration for his first four symphonies. Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’) was the title given to a vast collection of German folk verses gathered by the poets Achim von Arnim (1781–1831) and Clemens von Brentano (1778– 1842) during their journeys on the Rhine and its tributaries. First published in 1805 in Heidelberg (at that time the literary centre of the Romantic movement in Germany), with a larger edition appearing in 1808, the collection represented (among other things) a conscious effort to counterbalance what was seen as the unhealthy, even dangerous influence of the Age of Enlightenment, especially as represented by French culture and the dire upheavals of the Revolution and Napoleonic wars. On the literary side, writers like Johann Gottfried Herder (1744– 1803) argued for the superiority of Naturpoesie (the poetry of Nature) over Kunstpoesie (the poetry of Art—for which read all things Rational and French), while at the political level it was hoped that a return to the roots of German culture would speed up the goal of German unification.
Reviewing Des Knaben Wunderhorn in 1807, Goethe remarked teasingly that every household in the land should keep a copy on the shelf with its cookery books and bibles, or better still on the piano, where its contents could be sung to suitably simple melodies and accompaniments. In the event, the Naturpoesie of the Wunderhorn songs came to be associated with a Kunstpoesie of a less humble kind. From its very beginnings the German Lied had made use of poetry either of folk origin, or closely based on folk song. So it is no surprise to find Wunderhorn texts among the songs of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Strauss. But in general such poems were chosen as light relief—examples of genre painting, so to speak, to offset the more serious masterpieces. It was only Mahler who actually absorbed the implied music of the poems into his own musical language, and this he did first in the songs and then in the vast symphonic movements which he derived from them. For this purpose they were the perfect raw material, combining the earthy and the fantastic, the individual and the universal.
In all, Mahler composed some two dozen Wunderhorn songs with orchestral accompaniment (twelve, composed between 1892 and 1901, were published under the title Humoresken). In all but two cases the orchestral songs were preceded by piano versions, which, while clearly conceived in orchestral terms, are emphatically not ‘piano reductions’ (in the manner of an operatic vocal score, for example) but independent versions in their own right. The exceptions are Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell, the two great military pieces with which this CD begins and effectively ends (Urlicht acting in this case as a coda). Both of these songs were composed at a later date than the rest of the collection, and the evidence suggests both that their composition was far more closely bound up with their symphonic parallels, and that each was composed directly in full score. Realizing them on the piano, therefore, requires a degree of creative interpretation, especially in Revelge with its huge battery of trumpet and drum effects.
But for the pianist, tackling any of these songs is a challenge, inviting as it does comparison with the more frequently performed orchestral versions. Yet, as we noted before, the piano’s capacity for quasi-orchestral sonorities and textures was an essential element in the evolution of the Lied as an art form, allowing as it did for a far wider range of symbolic reference than would have been possible with any other accompanying instrument. Many of Schubert’s greatest songs depend on quasi-orchestral piano parts for their effect, while Hugo Wolf derived his own musical language from a pianistic recreation of Wagner’s ‘symphonic web’. So, Mahler may have always had an orchestral destination in mind, but he was by no means alone among Lieder composers in conceiving his piano parts in orchestral terms.
To enter the world of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs is like opening a picture book. Each page gives us another character, another fairy tale, another episode, whether happy or tragic, in the tale of human existence. Admittedly the characters, as in most folk song, are drawn from a relatively limited range of society. Military marches and Ländler abound, so that everyone seems to be either in uniform or wearing a Dirndl. Yet in spite of, or perhaps even because of, this relatively enclosed frame of reference, such is the consistency of its musical tone that Mahler achieves a remarkably intense evocation of human life in this collection, portrayed with empathy, humour and compassion.
On the military side, it is clear where his sympathies lie. His soldiers are no heroes, no changers of the world; they are the poor bloody infantry, the cannon-fodder (Revelge), the shell-shocked boys due to be shot or hanged at dawn pour encourager les autres (Der Tamboursg’sell). And his girls are their lovers, taking them to their beds for a farewell tryst before losing them to the war (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen), distracting them on sentry-go (Der Schildwache Nachtlied), or teasing them for their arrogant carrying-on in their smart uniforms (Trost im Unglück). In the background to these trysts and tiffs is the rural life with its mowers and servant-girls (Rheinlegendchen), its country bumpkins and peasant-girls (Verlorne Müh), its grinding poverty (Das irdische Leben) and its folk humour laced with homespun wisdom (Lob des hohen Verstandes, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt).
The current recording begins with one of the two latest-composed and longest songs of the collection. Revelge (1) is a terrifying march of death, from the days when troops went into battle as though on parade. To the rattle of drums and blare of trumpets, it is propelled headlong from early morning reveille into the fury of charge and countercharge. Only when every man has been mown down does the pace slacken, transforming the smart military stride into the dry rattle of dead men’s bones, ghostly fanfares echoing across the stricken landscape. The final page, in which the dead drummer and his comrades rise up once more on parade, is cataclysmic in its effect.
By contrast, Lob des hohen Verstandes (2) is one of the comic gems of the set. In one of his earlier Wunderhorn songs, Ablösung im Sommer, Mahler had humorously portrayed the transfer of vocal responsibility from cuckoo to nightingale with the passing of spring into summer. In Lob des hohen Verstandes the two avian songsters are in direct competition, and the chirpy C major is surely intended to suggest the pomposity of an ornithological Meistersinger. Academic scales and trilling cadences, the airy piping of the birds and the bucking and braying of the donkey, comic repetitions (‘Ohren groß, Ohren groß’) and throat-clearing pauses all contribute to the general air of naïve humour. At the end the donkey delivers his judgement with the fatuous lack of self-doubt of the truly stupid.
Rheinlegendchen (3) is the most charming and delightful of the many Ländler among the Wunderhorn songs, so successful at its first performance that the audience demanded an encore. In addition to the inevitable harmonization in thirds and sixths, the piano interludes incorporate elements of folk-fiddle improvisation. An inspired descent to the subdominant, as the mower’s ring sinks into the waters of the Rhine, is the most graphic of a number of startling key-shifts in this otherwise apparently simple song.
In concert, the Wunderhorn songs are often performed by two singers, male and female, and the collection includes a number of dialogues, of which the most famous, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (5), is perhaps the emotional highpoint of the whole set. It has a direct ancestor in Kriegers Ahnung, one of the most compelling songs of Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Offstage military fanfares and drum beats set the scene, in which a girl is visited by her lover, or by his spirit, on the eve of battle. Whether he is already dead, or has a premonition of death next day, is not absolutely clear, but in either case the rapt tenderness of the encounter, and its foreboding, is unmistakeable, contrasting the tight-laced 2/4 of military duty with the lilting, dreamlike 3/4 of the lovers’ embrace.
A similar conflict between duty and personal emotion is the subject of two further colloquies, which frame Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen on this recording, again musically realized in the contrast of military duple with seductive triple time. In Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (4), to the refrain of ‘Die Gedanken sind frei’, a political prisoner steadfastly maintains his courage against the pleas of his beloved. At first there is a complete contrast between his music and hers, suggesting she has no comprehension of the high ideals that have landed him in prison in the first place. But as she becomes more desperate and he more obdurate, elements of her complaints begin to infect his music. Nevertheless the song ends with his reiterating the refrain—‘Thoughts are free’. More haunting in its atmosphere is Der Schildwache Nachtlied (6). Here it is a soldier on sentry-go who has to resist the blandishments of an alluring female. With increasing vehemence (and even military bravado) he proclaims his devotion to duty, but the allure of her voice continues to ring in his (and our) ears through the extraordinary harmonies and textures in which Mahler clothes the final bars of the song.
Das irdische Leben (7) has a form typical of many folk-song traditions in which a sequence of actions leads to an inevitable, and usually unwelcome conclusion. In this case a mother is trying to comfort her starving child. Three times she attempts to quieten him—‘tomorrow we will harvest/thresh/bake’—but by the end it is too late to save him. Mahler sets the two voices against an eerie E flat minor moto perpetuo which suggests the grinding of the mills of fate. The child’s repeated cries of ‘Gib mir Brot’ span the widest possible intervals, first an octave then a tenth, like the gaping mouth of a fledgling in the nest, while the mother’s attempts at reassurance, lower in pitch, betray both anxiety and impotence. In the long interlude before the final couplet the music almost comes to a halt, its uneasy stasis telling us the outcome even before it is spelled out to us.
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (8), which Mahler later developed into the scherzo of his Symphony No 2, is the musical equivalent of a scene from some medieval German altarpiece. In this tale St Anthony, fed up at the indifference of his congregation, goes down to the river to preach to the fishes, the joke (and the moral) being that however much they all enjoy the sermon they are no more reformed by it than their human equivalents. Mahler’s setting has a wonderfully straight-faced sense of humour, its 3/8 ostinato teeming with fish that dart and dive through the depths of the keyboard in gleaming parallel thirds. When the fishes’ delight is expressed (‘Kein Predigt niemalen …’) the underlying Ländler becomes an outright dance, strutting its stuff with an almost Bergian polytonality, while a smoother and nobler F major section at ‘Gut Aale und Hausen’ perfectly conveys the distinctions of rank. At the end however all is disillusion; the final verse is underpinned by a C minor pedal point and the scene dissolves in a descending chromatic passage that is remarkably similar to the end of Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen from Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? (9) is another moto perpetuo in 38 time, its yodelling semiquavers obviously deriving from its Alpine context (‘High in the mountain …’). Evidently not meant to be taken seriously, the mock-pathos of the middle section (‘Mein Herzle ist wund’) is underlined by Schubertian key-shifts to G major and C flat major, while the final page is enlivened by no fewer than seven consecutive top E flats on the line ‘Und wer das Liedlein nicht singen kann’.
Two comic dialogues follow. Trost im Unglück (10) is a truculent exchange between a hussar and his paramour. Noisily proclaiming their self-sufficiency (she mocking his hobby-horse canter with a steadier, sidelong rhythm of her own), they gallop off in opposite directions, only to meet up next day, one suspects, for another round. Verlorne Müh (11) is a more unequal contest. Here the music is outright caricature, the girl’s wheedling Ländler-rhythms and lachrymose grace notes becoming ever more extreme, and the boy’s brushoff increasingly peremptory. But remove just a little of the acid, and the song could have come straight from the pen of Johann Strauss.
There is, however, no mistaking the composer of Der Tamboursg’sell (12). Like its companion-piece Revelge it is constructed on a far bigger scale than the other songs, as much inspired by, as generative of, the great Trauermarsch of the fifth symphony, which it closely resembles. As we have seen it was also composed some years later than the other Wunderhorn songs, at a time when Mahler was moving towards the other great literary influence on his composition, Friedrich Rückert. For the whole first part its texture is unremittingly spare and bleak, consisting of little more than a dirge-like groan and a riffle of drums. But the interlude that follows gives birth to a wholly unexpected and deeply moving melody, as the doomed drummer bids farewell to the world. Such a valedictory lament is of course not without precedent in Mahler’s songs—the last song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, for instance, is a funeral march, and the early song Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz also tells of a young soldier condemned to hang. But this passage has a greater significance in the development of Mahler’s compositional style. As the Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell has perceptively noted, the long drawn out melody, with its canonic second voice, sustained over a simple tonic–dominant bass, bears more than a passing resemblance to part of the first song of Kindertotenlieder, Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn. So this song, composed at the very cusp of Mahler’s transition from Wunderhorn to Rückert mode, manages to combine elements of both. It was Mahler’s own farewell to the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Urlicht (13), which acts as a coda to this recording, is the most remarkably spiritual song of the set. Recycled a year after its composition as the fourth movement of the second symphony, it is deceptive in its simplicity. The extraordinary serenity of the chorale-like section, for instance, is the product of a constantly changing time signature that punctuates the phrases and allows pauses for reflection. Both earthly sorrow and heavenly bliss are sketched in with vivid economy, the singer’s ‘broad path’ signalled by birdsong in the manner of Ich ging mit Lust—a vision of heaven as a paradise of nature, while the impassioned tremolandi and yearning intervals of the climax expand a mere five minutes of music into an entire treatise on the human condition. Nothing could better illustrate the crucial importance of the Wunderhorn world to Mahler’s vision—musical, emotional and spiritual.
Roger Vignoles © 2008