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Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock (conductor)
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Recording details: February 2014
St George's Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: May 2015
Total duration: 61 minutes 16 seconds

Cover artwork: Black Lines by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Guggenheim Museum, New York / Bridgeman Art Library, London

A third album in the Royal Academy's thoroughly admirable quest to rejuvenate Schoenberg's Private Musical Performance series, where 1920s Viennese audiences could enjoy the epic orchestral creations of the day in intimate chamber versions. Here we have works by Mahler, Zemlinsky and Busoni, as well as Wagner's gorgeous Siegfried Idyll.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'Bei soviel Sorgfalt verwundert es, dass Pinnock dafür eine so vibratoreiche Stimme wie die der jungen britischen Mezzosopranistin Katie Bray zuließ. Sie ist zwar, was Färbung und Expressivität angeht' (Pizzicato, Luxembourg)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
‘Mahler is a universal being within whom all threads converge…past, present and future merge.’ (Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1972)

Arrangements of works were part of the compositional fabric of the nineteenth century. At its core, arranging works was practical: they could then be played by different sized ensembles, and therefore in a variety of performing situations. Arranging was also part of a Romantic tradition of showing admiration. The works on this recording transport us to a period of vast musical change. Stockhausen’s quotation encapsulates this turning point: in Mahler we hear nostalgia welded with modernism; with Wagner, we hear the sunset of Romanticism; with Zemlinsky we hear the seeds of fin-de-siècle Vienna; and in all, the extremities of emotion distilled into non-symphonic forces.

Whilst Gustav Mahler had written several songs before 1885, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is the first of his many song cycles. The Gesellen Lieder are grouped by theme, for which Mahler took inspiration from the Romantic trope of the lonely wanderer suffering from heartbreak. Mahler’s narrative extends the tradition set by Schubert’s Winterreise, and yet is also intensely personal. The cycle was inspired by his romance with the soprano Johanna Richter:

‘I have written a cycle of songs, six of them so far, all dedicated to her. She does not know them. What can they tell her but what she knows?…She is everything that is loveable in this world. I would shed every drop of my blood for her.’ (Gustav Mahler, 1 January 1885)

These six songs became a cycle of four. Originally written for voice and piano, the Gesellen Lieder are a perfect example of Mahler’s technique of quotation. Passages from the second and fourth songs are reconfigured in his contemporaneous First Symphony. Mahler sought to hide these connections for as long as he could—this was, until the works were being performed in the same concert in March 1896. Through a strong tonal scheme, the wayfarer’s journey is charted not only through words, but also with keys, rhythmic motifs and specific harmonic progressions.

The Gesellen Lieder also capture the special relationship between composer and arranger. To some extent, arranging involves distorting an original voice. Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874–1951) arrangement is particularly interesting given his ambivalence towards Mahler. He once confessed that he ‘did not dare to study Mahler’ for fear that his aversion might return, and yet Schoenberg’s apartment was decorated with portraits of Mahler, and Harmonielehre is dedicated to the ‘hallowed memory of Gustav’.

Berceuse élégiaque, Op 42
‘Until now I had not liked Busoni’s works. But yesterday I liked the “Berceuse”. Downright moving piece. Deeply felt. I have been most unjust to him. Yet another!’ (Schoenberg writing in his diary, 20 January 1912)

The Berceuse élégiaque was a landmark in Ferruccio Busoni’s career. Writing in 1912, he rejoiced ‘for the first time in creating an individual sound’. Indeed the scoring is peculiarly restricted: Busoni does not use bassoons, trumpets or trombones, and conventional virtuosity is absent. Moreover, the work’s unique sound—its harmonic richness and emotional intensity—can be traced to agonizing circumstances.

The year 1909 was a painful year for Busoni. In May, his father died after protracted illness; five months later, his mother also died—a loss that Busoni described as ‘the most profound event in my life’. This duet of death is telling of what became a feature of Busoni’s output: dualism. The Fantasia after J.S. Bach, written in memory of his father, opens in ominous F minor, and the Berceuse élégiaque, written in memory of his mother, unravels sonorous harmonies of F major. Its orchestral version was subtitled ‘Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter’ (‘The man’s cradle song at his mother’s coffin’) and truly is an epitaph in sound.

The Berceuse was so different from anything that Busoni had tried before, that he decided not to publish it until he had heard it in performance. So whilst Busoni completed the work in October 1909, the Berceuse did not receive its premiere until February the following year. Conducted by Mahler at Carnegie Hall, the work was deemed a triumph. However, its success was overshadowed by further unfortunate circumstances. The concert, due to be repeated a few days later, was cancelled as Mahler fell ill. This was to be the last concert that Mahler conducted, dying three months later in Vienna.

In a work that is so surrounded by death, it is notable that the Berceuse élégiaque is crafted from wholly original material. Known for his transcriptions of works by other composers, such as J.S. Bach, Liszt and Mozart, Busoni’s primary methods of creation were by resurrecting ‘the dead’. Indeed, his transcriptions of J.S. Bach were so prevalent and admired that his surname was mistaken for ‘Bach-Busoni’ on multiple occasions. This fluidity of what constituted the musical work, skating a blurry line between arrangement, transcription and Nachdichtung, illustrates the constant regeneration of musical ideas, or as Busoni simply remarked, ‘every notation is the transcription of an idea’.

Sechs Gesänge, Op 13
With the case of Alexander von Zemlinsky, it becomes clear how the lives of these composers were inextricably intertwined. Schoenberg and Zemlinsky were close friends. They spent many summers together, composing in the countryside. Indeed, Zemlinsky remarked that it was Schoenberg ‘to whom I owe most of my knowledge of the technique and the problems of composing’. In the summer of 1899, Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, accompanied them to Payerbach. The trio continued to summer together over the next few years, and friendship soon blossomed into romance: Schoenberg married Mathilde in 1901. At the same time, Zemlinsky became passionately involved with his pupil Alma Schindler. Despite a correspondence of what can only be described as love letters, Alma ultimately rejected Zemlinsky in favour of Mahler:

‘After dinner, the guests split into groups and Mahler contrived to remain near Alma, who was now discussing physical beauty…The girl said that she thought Alexander Zemlinsky was handsome too, because of the intelligence that shone in his eyes, even though he was reputed to be one of the ugliest men in Vienna. Mahler shrugged his shoulders.’ (Berta Zuckerkandl)

It was somewhat unfortunate therefore that, as Zemlinsky was struggling in Vienna’s musical establishment, it was Mahler who stepped in to give him the support he desperately required. Mahler championed Zemlinsky’s music, giving the premieres of his works in the capital, and also secured conducting positions for Zemlinsky in various opera houses.

Lieder had been Zemlinsky’s passion since youth: growing up in Vienna, he was surrounded by the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf. However, in the 1900s, Zemlinsky dedicated his time to larger projects such as opera and orchestral works. It was only in the summer of 1910 that Zemlinsky returned to song. Holidaying in Bad Ischl, he was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s Quinze Chansons. The poetry is typical of Maeterlinck’s style: sensuous, mysterious and evocative. Zemlinsky’s score captures this atmosphere.

Wandering chromaticisms and non-functional harmonies reflect the unpredictability of the verse. Mahler’s influence comes to the fore in moments of lyricism; indeed Derrick Puffett described the last of the Maeterlinck songs as ‘all the Songs of a Wayfarer, indeed all the Mahler symphonies, rolled into one, a lifetime’s experience collapsed into a few minutes of music’.

Arranger’s note on Sechs Gesänge, Op 13 (Christopher Austin)
In the foreword to his famous treatise on instrumentation, Walter Piston wrote: ‘The true art of orchestration is inseparable from the creative act of composing music.’ If this is true—and I believe that, broadly speaking, it is—where does this leave a musician like me when asked to make a new version of Zemlinsky’s Sechs Gesänge? What can be the artistic basis for undertaking such a project? Clearly there is a specific tradition within which an endeavour such as this liesthe chamber versions of orchestral works as varied as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Webern’s Sechs Stücke für Orchester (miraculously rendered by a mere thirteen players, albeit three of them percussionists) that were made for concerts at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna.

In 1921 Erwin Stein—whose chamber version of Mahler’s Symphony No 4 has already featured in this series of concerts and recordings—made instrumentations of the second and fifth songs for nine players, but went no further. This is an understandable reluctance since the scope of the original orchestral textures is constantly shifting between opulent tutti and moments of greatest intimacy. This sense of scale is one of the things that I have tried to embody in my new instrumentation of these songs and I have at all times endeavoured to be faithful to the spirit of Zemlinsky’s originals, in the full knowledge that this can often require total infidelity to the letter of the score. This is the crux: I had to work from inside Zemlinsky’s score, understanding the weight of sound, the recurrent use of particular colours that bring a unity to the score as a whole, and so on, not merely imitate the surface of his sound.

My own score contains two instruments that do not feature in the originals: the accordion—to me a more flexible and powerful ‘evolution’ from the harmonium which features in nearly all the Viennese transcriptions—and the vibraphone. Alongside the harp and piano, the vibraphone not only creates a resonating chamber into which I can pour the other instrumental colours, but also connects with forward-looking aspects of Zemlinsky’s score which, in its particular blending of diatonicism and chromaticism suggests, to me, a tiny glimpse of the world of Alban Berg’s Lulu, where the vibraphone provides hugely important colour. Zemlinsky’s original scoring creates an acoustic unique to these songs and this is my way of giving these new versions their own acoustic. Orchestration that is organic has a grammar like any other part of a composer’s thought and it comes from within the idea and completes it. In fact, this is how I approach all my orchestrations and as such it is also the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this note, and constantly to myself while immersed in Zemlinsky’s magical sound-world.

Siegfried Idyll, WWV103
Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky all came to artistic maturity under the shadow of Richard Wagner. Dying in 1883, Wagner continued to influence composers for decades, particularly in Paris, Berlin and Vienna.

‘I asked anxiously “In heaven’s name, has something happened to your father?”. “Disaster, disaster, a catastrophe”, Mahler cried. “The greatest disaster has happened. Der Meister [Wagner] is dead”.’ (Emmanuel Raoul)

Wagner’s life was tumultuous. He was always on the run: from huge debt at a young age to judicial arrest after the May Uprising of 1849, and also from ill health during his years spent in exile in Zürich. Yet 1870, the year in which Wagner composed Siegfried Idyll, seems to be significant, even in this biographical storm. Finalizing her divorce to the conductor Hans von Bülow, Cosima was able to marry Wagner and celebrate their son Siegfried’s first birthday together. Furthermore, earlier that year Cosima would suggest Bayreuth as a location for Wagner’s theatrical enterprise.

And it seems that 1870 was crowned by the Siegfried Idyll. The piece was a ‘symphonic birthday greeting’ for Cosima. Premiered on Christmas Day at their home in Triebschen, rehearsals for the work were kept secret. Among the players was Hans Richter (the conductor of the first complete performance of the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth in 1876), who supposedly practised the trumpet part in a rowing boat on Lake Lucerne—only this way could he remain out of Cosima’s earshot. The seventeen musicians assembled on the staircase at dawn to awaken Cosima with the sounds of the Idyll. Legend also has it that the players reconvened each Christmas Day for a number of years, performing the work from memory.

The intimacy of the premiere is reflected in the orchestration, and is uncharacteristic of Wagner’s style. The first thirty-four bars are exclusively for strings, after which the wind and horns gradually enter, adding decorative countermelodies. Motivically, much of the material is derived from the conclusion of Siegfried, the third of the four Ring operas.

Just over 100 years ago, in Vienna’s Musikverein, the so-called Skandalkonzert of 31 March 1913 took place. This was an era of musical riots: Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire was met with shrieks in Prague the previous month and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused outcry in Paris two months later. The Skandalkonzert included works by Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Mahler. However, it is not widely known that Wagner’s Tristan Prelude was originally set to open the concert.

Mark Seow © 2014

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