Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)
Symphony No.2 'Resurrection'
CD 1, Track 13: CD 2, Tracks 1-4)
Born in Berlin on 1st August 1871,Oskar Fried exemplified the practical approach to music-making that hadsustained the pre-eminence of the art-form in German-speaking countries over theprevious century. Serving as a horn-player in Frankfurt's Palmgarten Orchestra from 1889,he soon moved to the Opernhaus and began composition lessons with Wagner's protegeEngelbert Humperdinck. A period as a freelance musician ended with his returnto Berlin in 1898, to promote hisown music, including, in 1901, a vocal setting of the Richard Dehemel poem VerklarteNacht that had inspired Schoenberg two years before. In 1904 the cautiouslypost-Wagnerian tonal language of his cantata Das trunkene Lied foundimmediate favour. His career as a conductor received a similar boost when, a yearlater, he conducted Mahler's Second Symphony, the composer commentingthat he could not have bettered the Scherzo in particular. Conducting Berlin's Gesellschaft derMusikfreunde from 1907, and the Bluthner-Orchester from 1908, Fried introducedfurther works of Mahler, as well as music by such contemporary composers asSchoenberg, Delius and Busoni. After 1913 he concentrated exclusively on conducting,where his combination of discipline and technical knowledge of the orchestralapparatus won wide admiration. His socialist and humanitarian convictions cameto the fore when, in 1934, he left Germany for Tbilisi, taking over direction at the opera house there, andtouring widely in the Soviet Union. He became a Soviet citizen in 1941, shortly before hisdeath.
To have recorded Mahler in 1924, before the acoustic process had beensuperseded by that of electrical recording, was a tough challenge for any recordingteam, but the Deutsche Grammophon company took the plunge with what, apart fromthe massive choral Eighth Symphony, was the most lavish of thesymphonies. To what, if any, extent the limitations of the process inhibitedFried's approach to the Second Symphony is now impossible to judge, butthe expressive freedom with which he controls the music, at the level of localiseddetail, between movements and across the work's almost 85-minute span, suggeststhat the personal conception that clearly impressed Mahler almost two decadesbefore is substantially intact in the present recording.
Fried sets a fast, incisive initial tempo for the opening Allegromaestoso, though an expressive use of rubato is soon in evidence, and heslackens skilfully for the second subject, opening up its idyllic vista with effortlesspoise. Some might consider Fried's marked ritardandos at climactic points toointerventionist, though the explosive central development is potently handled,an object lesson in controlled spontaneity, despite the inevitable degree ofoverload in the recorded sound. While the string portarnenti at the reprise ofthe second subject may be a little mawkish for modem tastes, the funerealrecessional that constitutes the coda is powerfully conceived, ominous to adegree that prepares for the settling of conflicts later in the symphony.
Fried is clearly at home with the landler strains of the Andantemoderato, maintaining continuity of tempo through the agitated episodes(superbly articulated strings here). There can be a thin dividing line between charmand schmaltz at such times in Mahler, and Fried nearly always gets the balanceright. The cello counter- melody at the main theme's first reprise isdelectably drawn, while the pizzicato strings and harp on its final returninterlock with true precision. Love them or hate them, the violin portarnentijust before the close are a period detail worth savouring.
The Scherzo sets off at a moderate, lilting pace, giving fullrein to its subtle malevolence (what should be the strokes of birch-twigsagainst bass drum sound uncannily like hand-clapping - perhaps a problem of balancethat was otherwise insurmountable back in 1924). The Trio breaks in withduly unwarranted triumph, Fried bringing out the trio-sonata interplay of itscontinuation, and easy sentiment of its slower section (what sounds like a bellreplacing the triangle), though the even steadier pace he adopts for thescherzo's return makes tempo coordination a little approximate.
The contralto Emmi Leisner makes a solemn impression in the radiant Urlicht
setting, the richness of her lower register perhaps striking an anticipatory likenessto Kathleen Ferrier in the minds of many listeners. The gentle protestations ofthe second section arouse a heartfelt supplication.
From the cataclysmic opening, Fried's conception of the Finale
underlines the dramatic and dynamic extremes of this epic movement. He dispatchesthe initial episodes briskly, allowing atmosphere but little mystery, beforethe brass chorale emerges with restrained nobility, the climax creating afrisson of emotion. It is difficult after 77 years to appreciate just howdifficult the articulation of the wrathful dance-of-death that follows musthave been; the Berlin musicians convey the visceral quality of the music,though technical limitations bear witness to a struggle that only a conductorof Fried's experience could have brought off. Whether the 'last judgement' brassare in fact offstage, their placement at the margins of the sonic spectrumgives an impression of space and remoteness, complemented by the liquid tone ofthe solo flute. Klopstock's Resurrection Ode steals in raptly what soundslike a small but disciplined body of singers. Fried takes his time building tothe climax, with such passages as the response between imploring contralto and pacifyingsoprano, the calmly assured Gertrud Bindernagel, bringing out the music'sstrongly human motivation. The peroration has none of the disingenuous theatricsthat later generations would impose on Mahler's heaven-storming vision. ForFried, it was clearly a matter of conviction - no more and no less.
Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)
Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Ruckert
CD 1, Tracks 1-12
Gustav Mahler's songs are a very special and wonderful addition to thebody of German Lieder, often imbued with the shadows of autumn and something ofthe melancholy implicit in late Brahms or in some of the songs of RichardStrauss, His settings of Ruckert's Kindertotenlieder were writtenbetween 1901 and 1904 and later perceived by the composer's wife, Alma Mahler,as tempting Fate, after the subsequent death of one of their own daughters,Friedrich Ruckert wrote the poems, which reflect his own feelings ofdesolation, after the death of his son Ernst, The first of the songs is Nunwill die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n! (Now will the sun so brightly rise, as if therehad been no stroke of unhappiness in the night). The second song, Nunseh'ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen (Now I see clearly why so dark f