Mahler: Lieder / Christian Gerhaher

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MAHLER Rheinlegendchen. Ich ging mit lust. Frühlingsmorgen. Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz. Das irdische Leben. Nicht wiedersehen. Phantasie. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. 5 Rückert Lieder. Urlicht Christian Gerhaher (bar); Gerold Huber (pn) RCA RED SEAL 756773 (75:52 Text and Translation)

Christian Gerhaher’s generous Mahler recital offers samples of the early, unorchestrated Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit (Early Songs and Ballads), several of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, the early cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and the later set of five Rückert songs.

The program begins with three lighter songs, intimately sung. Doubts about Gerhaher’s vocal substance are dispelled in the Songs of a Wayfarer, which he sings with a fuller tone and greater dynamic range. It’s a great performance of Mahler’s early masterpiece. Gerhaher sometimes sounds like the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, particularly in his upper register, and his Wayfarer approaches the level of Fischer- Dieskau’s magical performance from 1952 with Fürtwangler conducting. (I call it “magical” because it captures Fischer-Dieskau at his most unaffected and therefore most affecting). Gerhaher doesn’t have as rich a lower register as Fischer-Dieskau, nor is his singing, at this stage, marred by the self-consciousness that sometimes affected the older singer.

There’s an appealing modesty to Gerhaher’s approach that suits Mahler’s folk-like early songs particularly well. The voice suggests a sensitive youth singing with great sincerity, which seems at odds with the singer’s unshaven, morose-looking cover photo. (Is this an attempt at marketing Mahlerian angst? Why?) Gerhaher’s lack of mannerisms and lovely though not particularly distinctive sound do not mean that he doesn’t interpret the darker songs with real intensity of emotion—he does. The two big Rückert songs, “Um Mitternacht” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” are given satisfying readings, and “Das irdische Leben,” a feverish drama with narrator and several characters like Schubert’s “Erlking,” is strongly characterized.

There’s a treasurable version of the Rückert songs that Fischer-Dieskau recorded with Leonard Bernstein as pianist, a deeper, more italicized approach than Gerhaher’s—it seems to be currently unavailable—and there is also a wonderful concert performance by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson with Roger Vignoles, but I’m sure that I will return to Gerhaher’s performance for his natural manner of singing and for the outstanding contribution of the pianist, Gerold Huber.

I usually prefer to hear the songs that Mahler orchestrated played by an orchestra, but Huber’s piano playing has the rhythmic control of the greatest conductors. Every sound and balance is judged meticulously and his huge range of articulation and color sets a new standard in the playing of Mahler’s orchestral parts on the piano. Other than in the Rückert songs with their very delicate, specific instrumental timbres, I don’t miss the orchestra. The disc is well recorded and highly recommended.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 88697567732

  • UPC: 886975677320

  • Label: Sony

  • Composer: Gustav Mahler

  • Performer: Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber