New Wine in Newly Offered Bottles
Alice Tully Hall
Gustav Mahler: Sieben Wunderhorn Lieder; Kindertotenlieder; Vier Rueckert Lieder
Eric Shaw (tenor)
Andrew Schroeder (baritone)
Alfred Walker (bass)
American Symphony Chamber Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)
The painful nature of memory is the subject of the two song cycles presented yesterday by the ASO Chamber Players. What made this concert so interesting was that it followed the initial thoughts of the composer as to accompaniment expanding beyond the keyboard. Ten poems of Friedrich Rueckert are divided into two cycles, the Rueckertlieder and the Kindertotenlieder. Little has been made of Mahler the orchestrator, conventional wisdom anointing Rimsky-Korsakoff the master of tonal color in the early years of the century. But Mahler was an extremely subtle klangfarben artist (witness the almost imperceptible transition from clarinet to flute at the very ending of the Andante of the 6th) and in these songs he uses three variants of the standard double reed instrument to express the most intense pangs of the memories of regret (Liebst du um Schoenheit was never orchestrated by Mahler from the original voice and piano version and exists today in an arrangement by Max Puttmann, an employee of the songs' publisher, C.F. Kahnt).
In his Treatise on Instrumentation, that greatest of orchestrators Hector Berlioz remarks that the oboe family can represent the pain of a weak mortal. And nowhere is this more poignant than in these two cycles. All ten songs are related (try listening to the Rueckertlieder on recording immediately followed by the Kindertotenlieder) not only sonorously and in complimentary keys, but also in their treatment of the emotional universe. In Um Mitternacht (the Rueckert songs can be sung in any order) the piercing cry of the oboe d'amore expresses the cosmological pain of the hero whose despair is not even assuaged by thoughts of God, portrayed masterfully in the strident orchestration as a vengeful power. What was fascinating in this recreation of the original concert of 1905, wherein so many of these songs were first presented to the public, was the novel instrumentation, employing, in this particular song, no strings whatsoever. In Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen, the cor anglais sings a poignant lament evocative of the willow song from Verdi's Otello. Again the orchestration is key. Only a harp and pizzicato basses accompany this doleful song and close listening reveals that the melody, with only the slightest of alteration, is the same as that of the main theme of the great Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony. The contemplative world of the hero seems to be blissful (compared to a Zen garden by Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange) but one incredibly disturbing modulation near the very end of the song represents the intrusion of memory (what William Burroughs called the pains and rhythms of animal life) into this perfect environment. Although the hero sings of living wholly within his songs, he is actually, in spite of himself, a creature of the world of human society, a conflict the composer will explore again in the Symphony #9.
One of the Rueckertlieder is a frozen depiction of a memory, so delicate in its construction that it appears to be almost a double haiku (Rueckert was a professor of Oriental literature). This song, Ich atmet' einen linden Duft, was written as a love song to Alma and is usually dismissed as the weakest of the lot. Actually it is a brilliant contrast of two images of a lime twig being presented as a fragrant token of infatuation. The poem is in two stanzas. The first describes the memory of a past tryst:
Von lieber Hand
(a gift received from loving hand)
while the second expresses the present overwhelming sensation of the aroma of limes and love (Rueckert seems to have anticipated the theory that déjà vu is actually triggered by olfactory impulses). The fulcrum of the piece is the changing of one little word. The first stanza ends:
Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft
While the second begins:
Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft (both italics mine)
Not only has the tense changed from past to present, but the space between the two stanzas has taken on the role of a synapse and the entire poem is framed as a physical description of a wonderful memory. Mahler imbued his expressions of passion for Alma with a deep intellectual content, befitting her own nature and character (she was at various times the partner of Zemlinsky, Kokoschka, Gropius and Werfel). He didn't write mere ditties. Such a finely emotive performance by baritone Andrew Schroeder set against the diaphanous chamber color was positively thrilling.
But it is in the Kindertotenlieder where memory plays the more direct role. The songs express the grief of a father on the loss of his children (Mahler had eight siblings die in childhood and two more as young adults, including the suicide of his brother Otto whom he considered an even more imaginative composer than himself) and so the beloved are by definition creatures of memory and yet they appear as if still alive in these gripping poems. In Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen! (I often think that they've just gone out) the children exist in the present and in the past and thus assume the characteristics of memories. In Wenn dein Muetterlein (When your mother now), the father's reflex makes him look down at the level where the child's head would be whenever his wife enters the room. Again the children lead a double life as shadow characters. The entire cycle, painstakingly ordered by Mahler (he writes a preface to the conductor's score which instructs the leader to play the songs without pause, even going so far as to ignore any intrusive applause from the audience), is introduced by the oboe, marked klagend (sorrowfully) in the score, whose haunting melody remains after the initial effect of the songs has past. It is of course not unique to use the oboe family to express grief (compare the third act of Tristan or Sibelius' amazing Swan of Tuonela) but nowhere are there three such subtle shadings in one set of pieces as in these plangent little essays. These were by far the most exquisite performances of the afternoon, bass Alfred Walker, a rising star at the Metropolitan Opera next door, sending shivers through the crowd with his emotionally honest portrayal of the wretched father. The refreshing nature of the overall sound for those of us who are familiar with the more corpulent finished product, was a delicious tasting of a new heuriger, flavored with that unique Viennese combination of promise and despair.
Frederick L. Kirshnit