The Art Songs of Mahler: A Puzzle

My romance with Mahler's music began in late 1964. Columbia Masterworks offered a sound magazine for members of their record club. Four times a year members received a long-playing record in stereo, which had only recently been introduced, replacing one-channel monophonic recording. Each LP included twelve to twenty excerpts from Columbia's recently released recordings. Mahler's Second Symphony, the part with an orchestral song, was one selection, and it was so beautiful. Leonard Bernstein was recording all the symphonies with passion, and in great stereo sound. Trips to the library expanded my listening experience as he worked his way through the entire nine-symphony cycle.

The next year found me in a graduate program near Philadelphia, where Sam Goodie's Record Shop, with its thousands of LPs was a new world for me. Knowing Mahler's symphonies prompted me to try an LP of his songs, having never heard them before. Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children), and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen(Songs of a wayfarer) by Christa Ludwig, recorded in 1958. I was enthralled by the lovely sounds, the emotional expressiveness, the orchestral color, and her rich contralto-like sound. I bought more. Christa Ludwig singing other Rückert lieder. Das Knaben Wunderhorn with Bernstein at the piano, sung by Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig as a bonus album with the same repertory done by these musicians with orchestra. Those were heady times!

For all these years I have listened to Mahler songs. The LPs are all cleared out, replaced by CDs. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was discovered along the way, and in the last five years Thomas Hampson our great American baritone, has been researching and recording Mahler using his original piano and vocal scores. Two of his albums I'd recommend are both on Teldec: (D101590) Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano and (D135255) Lieder eines farenden Gesellen , with David Lutz at the piano. This recording contains Frühe Lieder (early songs) with piano accompaniment and the same songs recently orchestrated by Luciano Berio, who leads the Philharmonic Orchestra.

Over the years, I have had several recordings of Mahler's ultimate expression: his song-symphony, Das Lied von der Erde. My current favorite is with Jessye Norman and Siegfried Jerusalem and the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by James Levine (DG 439 948-2).

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