The incomparable lied baritone, Christian Gerhaher, revisits Gustav Mahler in his latest release Mahler: Orchestral Songs. Accompanied by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra , under the elegant baton of Kent Nagano, Gerhaher has recorded three Mahler song cycles in their authentic orchestral versions for the first time. On Mahler: Orchestral Songs, Gerhaher manages to blend with the compelling sound of the orchestra, but at the same time makes his baritone hover above the instruments, so that every word and nuance comes across without ever sounding forced. Simple in style and full of empathy, this is the art of song at its finest.
My first reaction was to wonder whether we had not passed saturation-point for recordings of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Over a dozen are currently available, of which any one of those mentioned above should satisfy the needs of even an insatiable Mahlerian. All are performances on insight, executed in majestic style, and several are available on CD. Now comes Sinopoli to add to the pile. Remembering colleagues' reviews of his London performances of Mahler, I put this recording on the turntable with misgivings. But I have to report that I now gladly make room for this remarkable performance alongside my other favourites. It does not displace them, but it complements them.
Part of the art of conducting seems to me to lie in the ability to make the listener attend afresh to familiar music, to reveal new or different facets. This is what Sinopoli does here, and whatever may go on in the concert hall (I have not heard him there), in the recording studio, judging by this release, the most certainly does not miss or misjudge the spirit of the music.
Swedish Mezzo-soprano and former winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Katarina Karnéus is joined on this disc by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki to perform three of Gustav Mahler’s orchestral songs. As a composer, Gustav Mahler was absorbed by song and symphony as complementary genres deeply involved with each other. In his first symphony, Mahler included two themes from the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, originally scored for voice and piano, which he had recently composed to his own poems. It was perhaps the experience of orchestrating these themes in his symphony that a few years later inspired Mahler to create the version for voice and orchestra.
It is all too easy to take Gustav Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs for granted in the 21st century's first decade. More than ever before, concert performances and recordings of these works abound, and at a level of proficiency that reveals the remarkable extent to which musicians worldwide have assimilated the composer's idiom. Given the music's primacy in today's central orchestral repertoire, we forget how the great Mahler advocates of the past had to champion his music in the face of adversity. "Who can bear those monstrous symphonies, those over-blown, out-of-date horrors," asked one leading music critic when the New York Philharmonic launched a Mahler Festival to celebrate the composer's 1960 centenary.