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GUSTAV MAHLER - Lieder - Bernarda Fink (Mezzo) - Anthony Spiri (Piano) - Gustav Mahler Ensemble - Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra - Andres Orozco-Estrada (Conductor) - 3149020217320 - Released: May 2014 - Harmonia Mundi HMC902173

Im Lenz
Ablösung im Sommer
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Nicht wiedersehen!

In the past, whenever anyone would ask me to describe the music of Gustav Mahler, I would immediately launch into a detailed, passionate, and somewhat convoluted attempt at an explanation, mixed with colorful imagery and musical examples, comparisons with other composers, references to heaven and hell, the universe, and intimations at the sublime. All of which probably left the interested party more puzzled than impressed, or with a look of "you've lost me" on their face. I realize now that all I needed to say was: "Listen to the Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am Lost to the World) song from the Rückert-Lieder written in 1901. This is Gustav Mahler. This short 6 minute song could arguably be regarded as the best music ever written, or at the very least the best 6 minutes of Mahler music. Mahler himself said: "It is my very self!" It's simple and down to earth, but yet soars to the outer reaches of the universe. I've heard this song as well as all of Mahler's songs countless times before, but I find that Bernarda Fink's down to earth, almost naïve approach could strike a chord with Mahler novices, and serve as a perfect introduction to his vast sound world. Previous recordings of note beg comparison. The 1969 EMI recording by Janet Baker with conductor Sir John Barbirolli brings to it a deep sadness, while the more recent Susan Graham with Michael Tilson Thomas (reviewed here), conveys a more other-wordly feeling than this new recording, mostly because of the sound of the orchestra and the fact that it's played much slower. (A whole minute longer). The Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra may not be the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra backing Susan Graham, but they are the perfect support for Bernarda Fink's voice. A voice that moulds itself to the spirit of each song, and in doing so brings out the music's intent rather than bringing attention to itself.

Another plus to this Harmonia Mundi recording is the fact that some of the songs are performed in their condensed piano accompaniment version, others in their chamber ensemble arrangements (courtesy of Arnold Schoenberg), and some with full orchestra. It's nice to hear some of these in their pared down guise, therefore allowing the essence of each to come across more freely.

Jean-Yves Duperron - July 2014