DF on Record Collecting, Comparative Listening, and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

Maher Davrath -- Main Page Image

Gustav Mahler… and soprano Netania Davrath

Of my many changing identities (child, adult, student, working man) the one that’s lasted longest – and may be the deepest in terms of self-definition – is as a collector. Make that specifically a record collector. It’s a hobby that became a passion, one I took up in elementary school, and which continues despite the exigencies of the music business, which make it harder and harder to do. Many years of working at Tower Classical Records in Los Angeles only made my collector impulse stronger – and, of course, the store provided extraordinary access.

If collecting isn’t your thing, stop reading now – most of this will sound simply obsessive, and probably won’t make much sense. But collectors among you will understand – they will also know it’s obsessive, but they’ll get it.

By way of explaining the joys of collecting, here’s a case study. This weekend, I spent the better part of two days aggregating performances of the final movement of Mahler’s fourth symphony. It’s a piece I’ve loved for years, and one that really lends itself to comparison (which for me is at the heart of collecting).

The piece is a short (generally less than 10 minutes) solo for soprano and orchestra. It’s densely orchestrated and one of Mahler’s gorgeously poignant melodies, but there’s a lot more going on than might be noticed at first. For one thing, the text is extremely odd – an excerpt from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, it’s the voice of a dead child, speaking from the afterlife. But the tone is almost cheerful – the child speaks of with gluttonish glee of the pleasures of heaven, mostly the delicious food (text and translation can be found here).

I was hooked on the solo from the moment first heard it. Its peculiar tonal mix of macabre and gemütlichkeit seemed to distill something central to Viennese art of this period. Also, a fascinatingly varied group of singers have recorded it. Where else can you compare Galina Vishneskaya, Frederica Von Stade, and Max-Emanuel Cencic??   And it’s extremely difficult to get it right. Achieving the childish voice – but also projecting the sophistication of the text – is tricky. It’s definitely a piece for sopranos – but much of it lies low (a number of even the best singers here have some pitch problems).

As soon as you start comparing, it’s addictive – there are so many subtle but critical distinctions. One among many is a phrase at the beginning – eleven notes on the word “himmlischen.” Mahler’s notations make clear that the notes are of different lengths (dotted 4/4 rhythm followed by a triplet); also that they should sound like a cohesive phrase. The text suggests delight. Some singers emphasize the legato line and give almost equal weight to each note; others underscore the “snaps.”

Mahler IV Opening Phrase (score)

The tricky opening phrase…

And of course, that’s zeroing in on the  vocal part – there are infinite varieties in the conducting too, though here I’ll focus on the singing.

OK, enough generalizations. Here are some specifics about what I’m now calling The Mahler Fourth Finale Project.

**  So far, I’ve rounded up 75 performances. (There are plenty more, and maybe I’ll keep going, but that’s it for now.) The singers include opera stars (Kathleen Battle, Renee Fleming, Edita Gruberova, Frederica Von Stade, Margaret Price), some perhaps better known as Lieder singers (Elly Ameling, Irmgard Seefried, Ruth Ziesak) – and a few who aren’t particularly well-known.

**  Timings range from 7:40 (Maurice Abravanel with soprano Netania Devrath), to 10:43 (Lorin Maazel with Battle). In their very different ways, I like both performances.

**  A few singers I expected to be superb in it disappointed me. Schwarzkopf is too knowing (especially in her 1961 commercial recording with Klemperer – she’s better in 1952 with Bruno Walter), and it’s not all that smoothly vocalized. Ameling is too bland, Popp too womanly. Helen Donath has exceptionally lovely tone and sparkle, but I find her vibrato too pronounced here. (Some singers use an almost straight tone – it suggests the childlike quality, although too much of it is wearying.)

**  Lest this seem too focused on the singing, I’ll point out two conducting moments that really impressed me. In the introductory moments – the second bar – James Levine emphasizes a dropping motif in the cellos that imprints the whole character of the piece. Similarly, just before the reprise of the soprano’s opening lines, Esa-Pekka Salonen does something gorgeous with the strings – they seem almost to be sighing.

**  Two particular “problems” are Irmgard Seefried and Hilde Güden. Seefried is extraordinarily vivid with text (I remembered a wonderful sentence by my friend, Jon Alan Conrad, who wrote of Seefried’s Hansel that she is “in a class of her own in terms of uttering each line as if she had just thought of it and couldn’t wait to communicate it”) – but the singing is effortful, and some of the pitch approximate. I had high hopes for Güden, whose highly individual, reedy tone and somewhat precious manner seemed perfect for it, but the performance itself is peculiarly disembodied, lacking a smile or even a sense of awareness.

**  Since the speaker is a child, it makes sense that some boy sopranos have been tapped to do it. Max-Emanuel Cencic is the most distinguished (and the one who has gone on to an adult career). He sings it exceptionally well, and there’s something to be said for the voice of a boy – but in the end, I find his tonal palette too limited to realize all the colors of the music and text.

**  Disembodied might also describe Teresa Stich-Randall’s performance, but the singing is of such unearthly beauty, the intonation so instrumental and centered, that it rises close to the top. There are many better readings of the text – but Stich-Randall’s singing made my jaw drop (twice in a row – I listened to it once, then went immediately back to the beginning and started again).

**  Is there clear winner? Probably not – but the one I keep coming back to is Davrath and Abravanel.   Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s the fastest – Abravanel’s speed has special brightness, which oddly makes the piece more touching (and it works much better for that opening “himmlischen” phrase). Davrath’s lovely tone and smiling, unfussy manner are infinitely winning – she’s not a native German speaker, and other singers do more with specific words – but few have Davrath’s simple charm. But don’t take my word for it – judge for yourselves (it begins here at 43:46).

Anyway, that’s how I feel today. Tomorrow, or next week, or next year, I may have another favorite. Like I say – it’s the joy of collecting.

Abravanel Mahler 4 Cover


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