The folk element, never far from Mahler's music, finds its most direct expression in his vocal compositions, whether in the sung portions of the symphonies or those works where voices dominate.
Most of his vocal output was inspired by "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Boy's Magic Horn), an early 19th-Century anthology of folk poems from all over German-speaking Europe. The "Wunderhorn" had earlier inspired Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann. But it stands at the very center of Mahler's creative style.
The most recent recorded version of the dozen "Wunderhorn" songs with orchestra has Klaus Tennstedt leading the London Philharmonic, with soprano Lucia Popp and baritone Bernd Weikl as soloists (Angel 49045, CD).
It is, alas, a failure. Tempos tend to be exasperatingly slow with, for example, a total absence of tension in the spectral march of the opening "Reveille," while the melodic line of the tender middle section of "Wasted Effort" simply expires, leaving the singers to tread water, so to speak.
Weikl is, under any circumstances, overmatched by the music, finding difficulties (compounded by the conductor's foot-dragging) at both extremes of the vocal range. Popp, in fine voice, copes bravely--in a losing effort.
How misdirected Tennstedt's version is is made clear in a compact disc reissue (Nimbus 5084) of the 1966 recording presided over by the little-known Wyn Morris, with baritone Geraint Evans and mezzo-soprano Janet Baker as his soloists.
Morris' leadership is simplicity itself. He keeps the music moving, maintains rhythmic and textural clarity and has his orchestra--a more alert London Philharmonic than Tennstedt's--playing with crisp energy.
Evans never did anything better on recordings, capturing the music's rough energy, its terror and sly humor to perfection with his appealingly grainy baritone. And while Baker sounds a mite timid here and there, the voice is exquisite in its purity.
Audiophile note: Most of the technical failings of the original issue and its various prior reincarnations--distortion in the big climaxes and too-close miking of the soloists--have been largely overcome by the Nimbus engineers. A bass cut still helps, a minor effort for the reward of hearing one of the great Mahler recordings of the past quarter-century.
Janet Baker is at her expressive, latter-years best in the so-called "Songs of Youth" with piano (Hyperion 66100, CD), some of them written in 1880, thus predating even the earliest "Wunderhorn" orchestral songs. Here, several of the folkish texts are by the composer himself while others are "Wunderhorn" pieces that were never orchestrated by Mahler.
The program also includes the most popular of Mahler's youthful vocal compositions: "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" (Songs of a Wayfarer), to his own wildly passionate verses. Baker, in glorious form, presents the songs in the piano-accompanied, presumed original versions rather than in their more familiar orchestral guise. A refreshing change.
The excellent pianist throughout is Geoffrey Parsons.
"Das klagende Lied" (The Song of Lament) is generally regarded as Mahler's first "important" work. While it hardly shows the subtlety of feeling found in the contemporaneous--circa 1880--songs with piano, its composer's mastery over a huge orchestra, with choral forces to match, is already evident.
This is a setting of the grisly Grimm fairy tale known in English as "The Singing Bone," and the 20-year-old composer attacks it with bombastic relish, introducing several strong thematic ideas to be presented in finished form in the later "Resurrection" Symphony.
Again, the work is presented in a most attractive light by Wyn Morris in the compact disc reissue (Nimbus 5085) of his 1967 recording. The fine orchestra is the New Philharmonia, with lusty choral work from the Ambrosian Singers and a strong solo contribution by mezzo-soprano Anna Reynolds.
The most strenuous and overreaching of Mahler's vocal works is the mammoth Eighth Symphony, the culmination of his Beethoven Ninth-inspired efforts at complete integration of voice and orchestra.
In the opening movement, a setting of the hymn "Veni, creator spiritus" (Come, spirit and creator), he concentrates on pitching his ecstasy ever higher, with diminishing results. And later portions of the work, which set passages from the metaphysical second part of Goethe's "Faust," attempt to plumb mysteries that seem totally outside the province of musical expression.
Still, there is some pleasure to be gained from as clear-eyed (and stunningly recorded) a performance as the one in which Eliahu Inbal leads his Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra as well as what reads like the assembled choruses of the Federal Republic of Germany and a strong contingent of soloists, including soprano Faye Robinson and baritone Hermann Prey (Denon 1564/65, two CDs).