Hermine Haselböck and Russell Ryan: "MAHLER: Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder"
Texts and translations. Bridge 9341
There's no dearth of recordings of these three Mahler song cycles, especially the immensely popular Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Almost all the recordings, however, are for voice with orchestra, even though Mahler created piano versions of all these songs. It's illuminating to hear these cycles in their piano/voice form — it brings one closer to Mahler's compositional essence and highlights his distinctive, penetrating harmonic language. And in a way, it places more of a burden on the singer: unlike the sound of orchestral instruments, the piano's tone inevitably fades on sustained notes, leaving more empty spaces for the singer to fill with sound and meaning.
Austrian mezzo Hermine Haselböck is quite skilled at doing exactly that: there's muscle behind her velvety-smooth mezzo, but she also possesses unerring breath control on long phrases, even at the softest dynamic levels. Her "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" (I have a bright-hot knife) begins with hair-raising power in the lunging phrase up to an F, but her heart-stopping sotto voce in the chilling middle section is even more effective, and the contrast between the two is arresting. In general, she has the technique and the sureness of artistic intention to handle fearlessly the most intimate and exposed passages of Mahler's unforgivingly stark vocal writing.
For his part, pianist Russell Ryan plays with so much imagination, shapeliness and variety of color that one almost doesn't miss the better-known orchestrated versions (not, that is, until one hears them again). With their complementary sensitivity in full force, Ryan and Haselböck make the listener hang on every note of the slow, unutterably sad "Die zwei blauen Augen," devastating even in its ambiguously optimistic concluding stanza.
Christa Ludwig, whose voice I have in my ear from her EMI Mahler compilation recording with various conductors, brings an open-veined anguish to the Kindertotenlieder that can make them difficult to listen to. In the opening "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehen," for example, Ludwig sounds like she's barely hanging on; her voice catches on the word "kein" in the middle of the phrase that observes the sun rising "as if no tragedy had occurred." Haselböck, more mournfully resigned than overtly grieving, doesn't have quite the same suffering in her voice. By not letting any rough edges show, Haselböck may deliver less of the intended devastating effect, but that actually makes her Kindertotenlieder easier to listen to than Ludwig's. By the same token, the piano makes the grief more intimate — it doesn't probe the entire range of human suffering, as the orchestral version seems to do. Whatever your preference, it's certainly worth exploring this carefully considered, beautifully rendered non-orchestral performance of these extraordinary songs.
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