Tuesday 22 September 2015

Mahler songs from Anne Schwanewilms and Malcolm Martineau

Anne Schwanewilms - Mahler Songs
Mahler songs; Anne Schwanewilms, Malcolm Martineau; Onyx Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 8 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Intimate and inward versions of Mahler's classic song cycles

My initial experience of Mahler's Kindertoten Lieder and Rückert Lieder was in the versions by Janet Baker. Though I have heard other singers (both men and women) in the repertoire, it is her whom I think of first. For this new disc, we have a very different style of female voice as the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms sings Mahler's Kindertoten Lieder, Rückert Lieder and three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, plus Schoenberg's Lieder, Op.2 accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, on the Onyx Classics label.

Anne Schwanewilms has a silvery, slimline voice with an element of steel to it, singing Richard Strauss and the jugend-dramatisch soprano roles of Wagner. Here, singing Mahler's songs in the versions for voice and piano, she and Malcolm Martineau bring a great sense of intimacy to the works.

But before Mahler, we have Schoenberg. His Lieder Op.2 were written in 1899 the same year as Verklarte Nacht. We are in the world of early Strauss, and Wagner here, along with some hints of Brahms in the luscious harmonic textures. Erwartung and Jesus bettelt are very post-romantic in style, with an intense and unstable chromaticism, and Schwanewilms sings them in a wonderfully interior way. Erhebung is faster and more romantic expressionist, though Richard Strauss comes to mind too. Finally Waldsonne displays the silvery beauty of Schwanewilm's voice, in another interior performance complemented by the intimate piano playing from Martineau.

The poet Friedrich Ruckert lost his children in 1833-34 and he subsequently wrote 428 poems on the deaths of children. Mahler set five of these, but in fact wrote them before the death of his own daughter. In an illuminating article in the CD booklet Schwanewilms talks about 'How to sing Kindertotenlieder without your voice choking up in anger and pain'. She has used the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Peter Levine, who analysed the processes of death and grieving, identifying the five stages which are used in bereavement counselling today. And Schwanewilms feels that it is these five stages that the five songs go through, gradually approaching acceptance. I am now sure that I can always detect these stages (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) in the performances but find the concept a satisfying one and the performances from Schwanewilms and Martineau are certainly illuminating.

We start with bleak, silvery beauty and a sense of intense inwardness  and an intimate piano. The second song has a similar mood, but full of tiny gestures. Schwanewilm' accuracy and pure tone, mean that rather than throb (as perhaps Baker does) she pierces the heart. The third song, Wenn dein Mutterlein, is sung almost under the breath with the piano a delicate thread, creating something bleak and beautiful rising to a tense climax. Oft denk'ich sei sind nur ausgegangen is more explicitly moving with a lovely sense of line. And the final song In diesem Wetter has vigorous piano and moves from anxiety to quietly inward limpid beauty. Throughout we have a lovely intense concentrated silvery beauty from Schwanewilms with profoundly moving piano playing from Martineau.

Next come three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Das irdische Leben is characterful dialogue between mother and daughter, which in this piano version sounds far more advanced than the later orchestral version. Scheiden und Meiden though faster, has many ghostly elements with a haunting ending to verse one. Aus! Aus! is another characterful dialogue.

Mahler's Ruckert Lieder were composed in 1901/1902 at a period when he was courting Alma. They look back to the Fourth Symphony and forward to the Fifth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. Ich atmt'einen linden Duft Is again very interior, with a beautiful floated line from Schwanewilms. Liebst du um Schonheit is again floated, with great intensity. She does not so much caress the line, as move with her silvery accuracy. Blicke mir nicht in de Lieder is lightly sketched in with charm and intimacy. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is heart-breaking with a fabulous sense of the words. Finally Um Mitternacht is intense, but sung with bigger tone for a powerful performance.

Throughout we get a sense of inwardness and intimacy from both Schwanewilms and Martineau and he matches her clarity of line, and piercing accuracy. I was a bit uncertain about the disc when I first saw it, after all Janet Baker looms large in my aural mythology. But here Schwanewilms and Martineau reveal a very different, and very moving side to Mahler's songs.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) - Lieder, Op.2
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Kindertoten Lieder
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Rückert-Lieder
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Elsewhere on this blog:

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