Friday, April 26, 2019

Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Mahler)

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

Today’s OTF music share considers a second Mahler song cycle; last month, I shared the Kindertottenlieder and this week, it’s a broader cycle, composed in dribs and drabs over almost two decades and whose subject matter – and music – permeates some of Mahler’s early symphonic output.

According to WikipediaDes Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder (literally; "The boy's magic horn: old German songs") is a collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, and published in Heidelberg, Baden. The book was published in three editions: the first in 1805 followed by two more volumes in 1808.

The collection of love, soldier's, wandering and children's songs was an important source of idealized folklore in the Romantic nationalism of the 19th century. Selected poems from this collection have been set to music by a number of composers, 

including WeberMendelssohnSchumannBrahmsZemlinskySchoenberg, and Webern, but it’s Mahler’s settings that have endured. He numbered the collection among his favourite books and set its poems to music throughout much of his career. The text of the first of his four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, begun in 1884, is based directly on the Wunderhorn poem "Wann [sic] mein Schatz".

His first genuine settings of Wunderhorn texts, however, are found in the Lieder und Gesänge ('Songs and Airs'), published in 1892 and later renamed by the publisher as Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit ('Songs and Airs from Days of Youth'). The nine Wunderhorn settings therein were composed between 1887 and 1890, and occupied the second and third volumes of this three-volume collection of songs for voice and piano.

Mahler began work on his next group of Wunderhorn settings in 1892. A collection (not a 'cycle') of 12 of these was published in 1899, under the title Humoresken ('Humoresques'), and formed the basis of what is now known simply (and somewhat confusingly) as Mahler's 'Songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn"'.

Today’s share includes 14 songs that are – shall I say – commonly grouped and performed in concert as a cycle, though some lieder are sometimes omitted as they are already included (in sometimes more elaborate ways) in Mahler symphonies. For instance, Urlicht was rapidly incorporated (with expanded orchestration) into the SecondSymphony as the work's fourth movement; Es sungen drei Engel, by contrast, was specifically composed as part of the Third Symphony, requiring a boys' chorus in addition to an alto soloist. Other songs found themselves serving symphonic ends in other ways: a singer-less version of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt forms the basis of the Scherzo in the 2nd Symphony, and Ablösung im Sommer is adopted in the same way by the 3rd.

An additional setting from this period was Das himmlische Leben; by the year of the collection's publication (1899) this song had been re-orchestrated and earmarked as the finale of the Fourth Symphony.

Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe and his Orchestre des Champs Élysées, founded in 1991 are known for playing Romantic and pre-Romantic repertoire on original instruments. I found it interesting that they chose to record many of the lieder from Des Knaben Winderhorn for Harmonia Mundi in 2006; this is the recording I am sharing with you this week.

A four-star Amazon review of this recording summarizes well my opinion of this fine reading by Herreweghe, a well-travelled HIP specialist much influenced by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. His Des Knaben Wunderhorn yanks this music out of the refined interior of the concert hall, back to its rough and rustic roots.

Dietrich Henschel is the picture of a sunburnt peasant and battle-worn grenadier. He avoids any hint of sophisticated smoothness, which some listeners won't find entirely appealing. (The sly humor is stripped from St. Anthony's sermon to the fishes, for example.) Sarah Conolly's voice is also countryfied; she is a believable peasant woman who has experienced the harshness of life and yet yearns for romance wherever she can find it. Because the two singers are so consistent, you feel them as the same characters form song to song. On every other recording that I know, the soloists try to do the opposite, shifting color and mood to suit each song. The fact that this version is different makes for a refreshing alternative.

Happy Listening

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (1892-1901)
Selected lieder, as presented in this recording:

"Revelge" – Reveille (July 1899)
"Verlor'ne Müh" – Labour Lost (February 1892)
"Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" – St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish (July/August 1893)
"Das irdische Leben" – The Earthly Life (after April 1892)
"Trost im Unglück" – Solace in Misfortune (April 1892)
"Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" – Where the Fair Trumpets Sound (July 1898)
"Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?" – Who Thought up this Song? (April 1892)
"Lob des hohen Verstandes" – Praise of Lofty Intellect (June 1896)
"Der Tamboursg'sell" – The Drummer Boy (August 1901)
"Das himmlische Leben" - The Heavenly Life ( February 1892)
"Lied des Verfolgten im Turm" – Song of the Persecuted in the Tower (July 1898)
"Rheinlegendchen" – Little Rhine Legend (August 1893)
"Der Schildwache Nachtlied" – The Sentinel's Nightsong (January/February 1892)
"Urlicht" – Primeval Light (1893)

Sarah Connolly, Mezzo-Soprano
Dietrich Henschel, Baritone
Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
Philippe Herreweghe, conducting
Harmonia Mundi 290192

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