'...mezzo Karen Cargill has just the emotional range these songs need, it's a big voice, and pianist Simon Lepper underlines their passion. I like that they open the recital with Alma Mahler's Five songs and such flirtatious freshness before the more familiar Gustav Mahler settings.' BBC Radio 3 'CD Review'
paired, the well-known Gustav Mahler lieder
follow five of wife Alma's lesser-known, but equally engaging, songs.
These personal and highly romantic songs are perfectly complemented by Cargill's
poetic sensitivity; her warm and vibrant voice, with the emotional insight
borne of opera, is breathtakingly beautiful.
Simon Lepper accompanies with sensitivity and flair; an award-winning pianist specialising in vocal accompanying, Lepper is a regular recital partner
A Musical Marriage
Placing Gustav Mahler and Alma Mahler's music side by side seems entirely logical. The couple's marriage and consequent fame within ‘Vienna 1900' makes them easy partners. Yet their relationship was often fractured as it was founded on an essential compromise: Alma had to give up any ambitions to be a composer if she was to marry Mahler. Accepting these conditions, Alma stopped composing and her surviving songs, setting texts by celebrated contemporary poets, are therefore representative of what might have been. Unlike his wife, Mahler did not set the poetry of his peers. Instead he preferred to look back to the early nineteenth century and the pained confessions of Friedrich Rückert and the strange ‘primeval light' of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, which in turn inspired Mahler's own bucolic verse.
Although they first met in the Salzkammergut in 1899, Mahler and Alma were formerly introduced by Berta Zuckerkandl, a shrewd and vivacious hostess, whose gatherings bridged imperial Austria-Hungary and the liberal margins of artistic Vienna. Also at that dinner party on 7 November 1901 were Gustav Klimt and the Burgtheater director Max Burckhard, Sophie Clemenceau, Zuckerkandl's sister, whose brother-in-law became prime minister of France in 1906, and Zuckerkandl's husband, the Hungarian-Austrian anatomist Emil. It was not an entirely successful meeting. Alma and Mahler got into an argument about musical matters, though Alma later confessed ‘that I liked him enormously'. ‘To be sure, he's very keyed up', she wrote in her diary. ‘He was like a bull in a china shop. He's pure oxygen: you get burnt if you go too close.' Unable to resist each other, a courtship ensued and Alma and Gustav were married in Vienna's Karlskirche on 9 March 1902.
Marrying Mahler, Alma had accepted certain conditions, which were set out to her in a letter from December 1901. The main thrust of Mahler's request was that Alma should stop thinking of herself as a composer:
I find myself in the curious position of having to compare my music - in a certain sense - with yours. I have to defend my music, which you actually do not know and certainly do not yet understand, against yours, and show it in its true light. Surely, Alma, you will not consider me vain, and believe me, this is the first time I have ever discussed my music with someone who had not found the right approach to it. From now on, would you be able to regard my music as if it were your own?
To Mahler, it was clear; two composers could not possibly co-exist.
A husband and wife who are both composers: how do you envisage that? Such a strange relationship between rivals: do you have any idea how ridiculous it would appear, can you imagine the loss of self-respect it would later cause us both? If, at a time when you should be attending to household duties or fetching me something I urgently needed, or if, as you wrote, you wish to relieve me of life's trivia - if at such a moment you were befallen by ‘inspiration': what then? Don't get me wrong! I don't want you to believe that I take the philistine view of marital relationships which sees a woman as some sort of diversion, with additional duties as her husband's housekeeper. Surely you wouldn't expect me to feel or think that way? But one thing is certain: if we are to be happy together, you will have to be ‘as I need you'.
By the summer of 1902, however, that disputed ‘philistine view' had become a reality, with Alma complaining that, ‘I've sunk to the level of a housekeeper!'.
Alma's frustrations and Mahler's possibly deserved but inarguably egotistical musical autonomy created significant problems in their relationship. These tensions were sadly exacerbated by the death of their daughter Maria in 1907. Mahler retreated further and further into his music, offering Alma little comfort. Seeking refuge, she embarked on an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius, establishing a series of relationships that continued after Mahler's death in 1911 and which have, forever, branded Alma as Vienna's foremost sexual temptress.
Perhaps if Mahler had allowed Alma to compose or had Alma stood her musical ground, the marriage might have evolved on a more even keel. Regardless, a not-inconsiderable talent was silenced, as evinced by Alma's superb Fünf Lieder. The songs contained in this collection were composed before 1901 and eventually published by Universal Edition in 1910, after Mahler had discovered Alma's affair with Gropius. The publication, entirely engineered by Mahler, was a desperate bid to appease his wife. ‘What have I done?' he wrote. ‘These songs are good - they're excellent. I insist on your working on them and we'll have them published. I shall never be happy until you start composing again.'
It was too late, but the surviving songs luckily give us some impression of Alma's world before she met Mahler. She clearly gorged on the poetry of the fin de siècle, such as that by Richard Dehmel, whose ‘Verklärte Nacht' inspired Schoenberg, as did the translations of Pierrot lunaire by Otto Erich Hartleben, whose verses Alma likewise set. Also represented here are Rainer Maria Rilke, Gustav Falke and their forerunner Heinrich Heine, all poetic choices that demonstrate an acute cultural mind. Mirroring her literary taste, Alma's musical style is notably forward-looking, employing a variegated and sometimes highly liberal harmonic palette with strong kinship to that of Zemlinsky and Schoenberg.
Mahler's songs, on the other hand, represent an Orphean backward glance to the poetry and themes of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1901, just before he began his courtship with Alma, Mahler started a series of settings of the nineteenth-century poet Friedrich Rückert. First performed in Vienna on 29 January 1905, they were published as part of Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven Songs of Latter Days) in 1910. The hesitant vocal line of ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder' emerges over a run of shivering quavers, simulating murmuring bees. Yet these tones also echo Mahler's cautiousness. Bruised and beaten by continuing critical onslaught in Vienna, his time in Maiernigg proved a safe haven away from the strains of the capital. ‘Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!' switches between indolent and amorous moods, with the evocative perfume of lime trees hovering over the song, heightened by a modulation in the last verse.
‘Liebst du um Schönheit' is the only song of the set to be written after Alma's arrival, in 1902. It is a love song, though one that Mahler was keen to suppress, neither including it in the premiere in 1905 nor orchestrating it for wider performance (though it was eventually published with the others). It builds steadily, with each rising phrase mirroring the motif that characterizes the composer's Fifth Symphony, not least within the adagietto that has perennially been associated with Mahler's love for Alma. ‘Um Mitternacht', however, signifies a dark night of the soul. After the nervous energy of the first two songs and the amorous ‘Liebst du um Schönheit', the stasis here is distinctly eerie, until a Godly invocation moves us towards a more authoritative coda.
Yet in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen', the loneliness that had initially permeated ‘Um Mitternacht' becomes the new goal, ‘dead to the world's tumult'.
Rückert's writing suited Mahler's perfectly and he continued to set his poetry, including texts from the poet's Kindertotenlieder, 428 verses written in response to the death of two of his children to scarlet fever. Their composition, between 1901 and 1904, proved oddly prescient, as Mahler's daughter also died of scarlet fever in 1907. This fixation with Rückert supplanted a similar fascination for the poetry contained in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, running through the early part of Mahler's career and heavily influencing his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen from the mid-1880s. With its familiar figure of a Romantic wanderer, Mahler's cycle offers a latter day journey back into the land of lost content that had characterized Schubert and Schumann's genre-defining song cycles. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were written while Mahler was working in Kassel, where he fell in love with Johanna Richter, one of the town's resident sopranos. The poems she inspired furnished Mahler with the texts for his first orchestral song cycle and, in turn, much of the musical material for his First Symphony.
Mahler's poem ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht' borrows significantly from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Its contrast between the narrator's mourning and the bride's joy are described in the song's stuttering energy, swinging between four and three quavers in the bar. There is an illusory middle verse, referencing a ‘little blue flower', doubtless a forget-me-not, before the sullen tones return. Happier hallucinations inspire ‘Ging heut morgen übers Feld', the peppy melody of which provided the thematic material for the opening movement of Mahler's First Symphony. The tertiary modulation in its third verse brilliantly evokes the warming sun, though the consequent slackening of pace and a shift to the dominant (from which the song never returns) proffer an ominous question mark.
‘Ich hab' ein glühend Messer' submits an embittered response, with a stormy accompaniment and braying vocal statements. Here, Mahler introduces the image of two blue eyes, echoing the flowers mentioned in the first song, as well as introducing the main topic of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz', which likewise made a significant appearance within the First Symphony. Its equivocations between major and minor and hazy allusions to lime trees place this song firmly within the world of Schubert and Schumann's lovelorn cycles.
‘Urlicht', on the other hand, portends a world beyond. Having begun with a stormy C minor march, Mahler's Second Symphony, in which this song first appeared, slowly ekes its way to a glorious promise of the Resurrection. ‘Urlicht' is the keystone in that transformative span, minor turns to major and the pains and tribulations of life on earth are sublimated in the ‘eternal blissful life'. But like so many of Mahler's songs, ‘Urlicht' also suggests a figure alone in his thoughts. Ultimately, Mahler might have been happy to share his music - he called his gigantic Eighth Symphony a ‘gift to the nation' - but it was created by means of hours of self-absorbed isolation. As summer approached and the Mahler family decamped from Vienna to the light, air and space of the Wörthersee and later to Toblach, Alma had to prepare for weeks of solitude, as Mahler left at the crack of dawn to go and compose in his hut. Yet her loss, including the termination of her own musical gift, briefly captured here, was Mahler's and our significant gain.
© Gavin Plumley, 2014
Recorded at St George's, Bristol, UK, 1-4 July 2013
Produced and recorded by Philip Hobbs
Post-production by Julia Thomas
Photography by K K Dundas
Cover image Bride of the Wind (1913) by Oskar Kokoschka (Kunstmuseum, Basel), courtesy of Bridgeman Art Gallery. © Foundation Oskar Kokoschka / DACS 2014.
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