On record – Michael Gielen conducts Mahler: Das klagende Lied (Orfeo)


Brigitte Poschner-Klebel (soprano), Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo-soprano), David Rendall (tenor), Manfred Hemm (baritone), Wiener Singakademie, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Michael Gielen

Das klagende Lied (1878-80, rev. 1899)

Orfeo C210021 [62’10”] German text and English translation included. 

Remastering Erich Hofmann

Live performance at Konzerthaus, Vienna, 8 June 1990

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Orfeo has put Michael Gielen admirers in its debt with this live performance of Das klagende Lied, a work which this conductor did not tackle with the SWR Symphony Orchestra and so could not be featured in the sixth volume devoted to Mahler of SWR Music’s Gielen Edition.

What’s the music like?

The almost total dearth of music composed prior to Das klagende Lied makes its appearance the more remarkable, Mahler drawing on a lineage from Schubert, via Schumann and Liszt, to Wagner in a dramatic cantata – to his own text – whose themes of fratricide and vengeance beyond the grave struck a resonance. Its failure to secure the Beethoven Prize in 1881 likely condemned Mahler to years in provincial opera houses; major revision leading to its premiere in 1901 and publication the following year – the first of its three parts having been jettisoned.

Yet it is Waldmärchen, broadcast on Czech radio in 1934 but otherwise unheard until 1970, that most clearly denotes the nature of Mahler’s achievement. The lengthy orchestral prelude resounds with horn-calls and images of nature, and if the initial stages of the narrative reflect the schematic confines of its ballad form, the depiction of the younger brother’s triumph then his death at the hands of the elder brother summons a response of starkest intensity; with that desolate closing section seldom (perhaps never?) equalled for its depiction of innocence lost.

The remaining parts are more concentrated in their unfolding, while no less focussed in their emotional acuity. Der Spielmann relates said minstrel’s unwitting discovery of the murder through a tense intermezzo that more nearly touches on Mahler’s future symphonic thinking, while Hochzeitstück affords the greatest emotional contrasts as it moves from evoking the wedding festivities, via the stealthy revelation of the elder brother’s guilt, to a violent climax then postlude that renders such events from a vantage no less tragic for its otherworldly calm.

At the time of the present performance, Das klagende Lied was only performable in a hybrid of the first part with the revised second and third parts. Publication of the original scores of these latter two in 1997 should have made for a straight choice between the 1880 original or the 1899 revision, but most subsequent hearings have still opted for the earlier compromise – regrettable, given Mahler amended the latter parts so these could be heard without reference to what had once gone before. Not that this should inhibit appreciation of what is heard here.

Does it all work?

It does, thanks to Gielen’s intent in endowing those narrative and – latent – symphonic facets of this score with an unforced equilibrium. Of the vocalists only the soprano’s rather fluttery tone affords reservations, the Wiener Singakademie despatches Mahler’s resourceful choral writing with relish, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra sounds fully attuned to an orchestration whose keen originality doubtless unnerved his elders at its time of completion. Immediate yet sympathetically balanced sound faithfully conveys the ambience of the Konzerthaus acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Those wanting the piece as Mahler conceived it should acquire Kent Nagano’s account (Erato), or head to Pierre Boulez’s remake (DG) for the two-part revision. Otherwise, Gielen’s amalgam could well be considered the first choice for this so often astounding work.

Listen & Buy

You can get more information on the disc at the Orfeo website, or purchase from Presto

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