Mahler: Songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn"). Jessye Norman, soprano, John Shirley-Quirk, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, conductor (Philips 9500 316). This sometimes sardonic, sometimes delirious, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes macabre - and always ironic - scrapbook of symphonic songs for soprano, bass and orchestra was for Mahler a kind of trial run for his early symphonies. Of the 13 pieces he built on some of the carols, folk songs and verse from the famous German volume of this title, several are the foundations for non-vocal movements in the symphonies. One, "Urlicht" ("Primeval Light"), is inserted as is, with the soprano singing the text, as the fourth movement of the epic Second Symphony ("Resurrection"), and for this reason it is omitted from most versions of this cycle, as it is here.
This pungent material gave Mahler greater freedom than traditional forms to experiment with the wider limits to which he was soon to start taking symphonic expression. He did not conceive of "Wunderhorn" as a cohesive song cycle like the ones he would later write, though the songs are interrelated. The order wasn't even specified. And several songs are for either singer; here St. Francis' rather mad and, of course, futile sermon to convert the pike, the cod, the crab and the carp, goes to the baritone, though on the Ludwig/Berry/Bernstein disc, as on many others, the soprano wins out.
And for this we should be thankful. Because the best reason for buying this performance is the utterly alluring interpretation by John Shirley-Quirk of the four bass songs and in the four duets with soprano. "Revelge" ("Reveille"), the song of a dead soldier and one of Mahler's most arresting evocations of a grim and spectral subject, is sung for once with swagger, humor and even a slightly tipsy little portamento near the end. Thus the ironic effect that would be so characteristic of Mahler to come, with this playing up of the sweet-sour juxtaposition, really works here. Compare it to the frenetic Berry-Bernstein to see what I mean.
On the other hand the soprano, Norman, gives the most bland performance of the soprano songs I remember hearing. In another song about death, "Das Irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life"), she gives us a quick run-through with little interpretive contrast between the pleas of the dying child and the replies of the mother. Try Ludwig with Bernstein to hear how riveting this musical poem about a child's desperation in face of death can be.
Clearly there is no best of these songs, but this may be the best of the baritone ones, each of which is the young Mahler at his every best. On top of that, there is Haitink's poised, gentle interpretation (better for some songs than others) and the beautiful recorded sound to be considered.
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49; Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66. The Beaux Arts Trio. (Philips 6580 211). Okay, the Schubert and Mozart Trios they are not. They are not that deep. They tend to be neglected for the shameful circumstance that they are only almost that good. Take the warm, flowing and very richly lyric melody that opens the First Trio - you might call it Eine Kleine Love musik . Maybe it doesn't lend itself to extended development on the scale of a Beethoven, but so what? It's gorgeous. Not every tune is on that level, but Mendelssohn could be adjudged a superb melodist on the basis on these trios alone.
This disc is the only recording pairing the works, and it is a reissue, from Philips' deleted World Series line. The few rough edges are easily forgotten as one is absorbed by the fresh, captivating fluency of the performance. Menahem Pressler is the pianist; Daniel Guilet, the violinist; and Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist.
Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat. Teresa Berganza, mezzor soprano. Boston Symphony Orchestra. Seiji Ozawa, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon 2530 823). This performance might be called "Switched-On Falla." As a colleague observed, it's the kind of recording that sounds like the mikes were inside the tympani. This is a brisk, occasionally almost breathless rendition of the music for this 1919 Diaghilev ballet, which Massine choreographed and for which Picasso did the sets. Certainly the Boston Symphony can handle this kind of high-powered rendition; at times the strings' articulation is remarkable as is the general clarity of the sound. If you like your Falla played like "Boler," here is your record.
For all its exhilaration, this [WORD ILLEGIBLE] sacrifices the lazy, sensuous atmosphere of the rustic little Andalusian town and the gentle sweetness of the fable about the governor's ludicrous attempts to seduce the miller's wife. With Boulez, on Columbia, you get all this and more - as well as on London (Berganza again the soloist) conducted by Ansermet, who presided at the premiere.
J.S. Bach: Violins Concertos in E major and A minor; Double Concertoin D minor; Air from Suite No. 2. Henryk Szerying, violin; Maurice Hasson, violinist the Double Concerto; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Neville Marrier conductor (Philips 9500 626). With such distinguished musicians involved, a record of these treasures of the violin's literature raises high hopes. And if coolness, poise and clarity are the qualities you most value in your Bach, your hopes may be rewarded.
But there are those of us who preceive these as intensely passionate works. The first movement of the E major, as an example, should start with an urgency [WORD ILLEGIBLE] these performers deliberately eschez with the result that the contrasting comer interludes to follow lose their effect. The one work on the disc that certainly does not need a rhetorical push is the famed Air, and Szerying performs the melody - normally for massed strings - as a solo theme with a broad, grave understatement that is exactly right.