CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 11 FEBRUARY 2010
Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10; Twelve Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. (Magdalena Kozená, mezzo-soprano; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Pierre Boulez, cond.)
The line between folklore and what's been called "fakelore" can be a thin one. Everybody's heard, for example, of the ancient clan tartans of Scotland. But many of these, I'm told, trace their origins to the Vestiarium Scoticum, generally agreed to be a Victorian-era forgery. And America's great mythological hero Paul Bunyan? His name didn't appear in print until 1906, and many of the famous stories of Bunyan and Babe the blue ox come from promotional pamphlets composed for the Red River Lumber Company.
When, in 1806, Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim released a volume of "folk poetry" titled Des Knaben Wunderhorn, scholars complained that they had too often succumbed to the lure of "fakelore," rearranging texts to enhance their effect, fudging sources, and including poems by well-known literary writers. But, whatever its scholarly deficiencies, Wunderhorn became a runaway hit. And its influence loomed especially large in the imagination of Gustav Mahler, inspiring a batch of orchestrated songs that you can sample at this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts.
Conductor Pierre Boulez, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená and baritone Christian Gerhaher present a fairly standard assemblage of twelve of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs. The practice of using two singers in the "dialogue" songs is not followed. And though some listeners argue that performing these songs as duets is essential for a sense of immediacy, it's difficult to agree when you hear the careful distinctions of voice and character Gerhaher draws between the prisoner and the girl in "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm." Kozená and Gerhaher are an interesting study in contrasts. Gerhaher is relatively reserved, his voice an instrument of subtle but expressive hues. Kozená is more demonstrative. Occasionally, as in the section of "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" in which the maiden begins crying, she pushes the drama a little far. That's easy to forgive, though, when her storytelling throughout the rest of the song is so compelling.
Despite the distinguished pair of soloists, it's Boulez's conducting which most consistently engages the ear. He realizes the uncanny orchestral accompaniment to the third stanza of "Der Tamboursg'sell" and the pungent conclusion of "Revelge" with tremendous vividness. Boulez's Mahler has surely gained a degree of intensity over the years.
But Thursday's program-opening Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony confirmed that, rather than sacrificing his legendary intellectual rigor, Boulez has wedded it to a profound visceral understanding of this music. From the first pages, Boulez keeps the music under tight control, declining every opportunity to wallow in self-pity. Instead, Boulez seems to emphasize the strange ambivalence of the opening theme, using it as a springboard into a psychological world that's both elusive and rich.
Yes, Mahler was known to find inspiration in dubious folk poems with a dodgy pedigree. But Boulez's carefully proportioned performances of Mahler's music testify to the unimpeachable emotional authenticity at the heart of the composer's work.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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