Wigmore Mondays – Hanno Müller-Brachmann & Hendrik Heilmann in Mahler

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone), Hendrik Heilmann (piano)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann pic © Monika Rittershaus

Mahler Kindertotenlieder (1901-4) (27 minutes)

Mahler Rückert Lieder (1901-2) (21 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10 July, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

First, a health warning. These songs have subject matter and musical content that is not for the faint of heart! Yet if you can allow for Mahler’s preoccupation with death and its implications, then there is much to appreciate here in the vivid power of his writing, and it does offer some consolation to the pain and strife elsewhere.

Mahler was drawn to the text of Friedrich Rückert, and set it on several occasions. The first ‘cycle’ of the poet’s works was Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children), which drew from the composer some remarkably bleak and intense music, responding as he was to the death of eight of his siblings during their childhood. The bitterest of ironies was that only four years after the completion of the work, the composer’s daughter Maria died from scarlet fever aged just four.

This lends a painfully poignant air to the music, fully exploited here by the outstanding German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann and his descriptive musical partner, pianist Hendrik Heilmann. The singer’s tone was slightly nasal in the delivery of these songs, but right from the start of the opening poem, Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgeh’n (Now the sun will rise as bright, from 1:51 on the broadcast link) it was used very carefully to give an idea of the hollow grief for those involved.

The second song, which seems to tell of a child suffering from an incurable disease (from 7:55), laid bare its grief, as did the third (12:58), talking of ‘O du, des Vaters Zelle, Ach zu schnelle Erlosch’ner Freucenschein’ (‘O you, the joyful light…too soon extinguished’). This was similarly dark, reaching an uncomfortably powerful climax from 16:40.

And yet, the radiant brightness of the sun was gradually used to convey the release of grief and the promise of hope in the future, the young lives laid to rest. This was heard fleetingly in the middle of the second (around 10:35) and third songs, usually where Mahler moved to a major key, but in the fourth, where the poet muses how ‘they have only gone for a long walk’, Muller-Brachmann and Heilmann made clear the serenity of the end (from 20:50), where ‘the day is beautiful on these hills’.

Finally, In diesem Wetter (In this weather, 21:38), where the tension broke loose in the form of a storm, dramatically conveyed by Heilmann, before Müller-Brachmann hurled forth a vocal bristling with anger and panic. This, too, subsided to a form of peace, the five songs finally allowed a resting place.

After this more Mahler was a risky move, but with such authoritative singing it made sense to go into the five Rückert-Lieder, which by and large offer a less stark approach. Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty, 31:12) offered a lighter mood, and more vibrato from the singer, who then exploited the dark humour from the start of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look at my songs!) (33:30).

The distracted Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) was a beauty, the most fragrant of the songs heard so far, beautifully introduced by Heilmann 34:45 and softly sung. Yet there was a feeling of inevitability about the approaching and devastating Um Mitternacht (At Midnight, 37:56) where a cold shadow fell over the hall. Interestingly this was sung at a lower pitch than is normally the case, suspended in G minor rather than the B flat minor normally used.

Finally a song of true peace and rest, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world, 44:50) was introduced with all the time in the world by Heilmann, who dictated the slow but lovingly wrought interpretation.

These were superb, thoroughly authentic Mahler performances, draining every last piece of intensity from the words and, equally importantly, from the piano part. It almost seemed churlish to offer encores, but there were two from Mahler’s pen. The first, a carefree folk setting Ich weiss nicht, wie mir ist! (I do not know what’s wrong with me, 53:45) was followed by the outrageous Lob des hohen Verstandes (Once in a deep valley, 56:23), the singer doing his best to bray like a donkey and coo like a cuckoo or nightingale as he depicted a singing competition between them!

Further listening

The works in today’s concert were orchestrated by the composer, and can be heard on this new release from the superb Alice Coote, showing their versatility for either male or female voices. The female voice lends a special potency to the text of Kindertotenlieder in particular:

It is also worth including a link to what is for many one of the greatest vocal recordings, Dame Janet Baker’s interpretations of the Mahler cycles in this concert, together with the Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). All are conducted by Sir John Barbirolli:

Finally, in response to the encores, a listen to Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (with Müller-Brachmann singing), a collection exploring the composer’s fascination with folksong and a child’s way of thinking, often about nature: