Anne Schwanewilms is not a prolific recording artist but for several years she has been enlarging her involvement in roles of the Fach known as Jugendlich-dramatischer Sopran. Lately Lieder has come to take an increasing share of her performed and recorded repertoire.
This Onyx issue provides an admirable amount of added value. Not only does it supply estimable accounts of two of the Mahler song collections but the inclusion of some fin de siècle settings by Schoenberg offers insights as a new attitude towards tonality visibly develops. The booklet note to the latter by Drummond Bone draws a parallel between Mahler's creative relationship with a single poet (Rückert) and Schoenberg's (with Richard Dehmel). Since Dehmel is mainly associated with some of the 'softer' songs of Richard Strauss, it comes as something of a surprise to find that Dehmel was a social radical and political subversive (the latter up to the 1930s), causing him to attract the attention of the censor for blasphemy and eroticism. He was quite a rebel! The suggestive possibilities of his imagery are difficult to ignore.
The four exotic lyrics here performed are unmistakably blatant in challenging literary and social rules. In ‘Erwartung’ a man awaits a liaison which, if not extra-marital, at least promises sensual fulfilment. The title ‘Jesus bettelt’ of the second song was always likely “to ruffle a few feathers”. 'Erhebung' is the third Dehmel poem, short and imaginative, but the fourth slot is filled by a manifestly inferior poem (‘Waldsonne’) by Johannes Schlaf. Musically Schoenberg does not yet push the bounds of late-romantic tonality too far. Voice and piano have equal status, as they had had since Schubert. Brahms is at hand in the piano passages. Malcolm Martineau is at his considerable best in the showers of notes which result for him, while Wagnerian chromaticism dominates the vocal lines. Schwanewilms is a highly accomplished singer.
Moving on to the Mahler vocal repertoire and a rare selection of piano over orchestra: Kindertotenlieder with piano is uncommon; performing the five unconnected songs known as Rückert-Lieder is rather the opposite and presents a great contrast. In the latter, 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' could hardly be bettered. The songs are stimulating in themselves: the extended imagery of ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ (the scherzo of the collection), the uniqueness for Mahler of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, the searing subjectivity of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ and the sheer luminous beauty of ‘Ich atmet' einen linden Duft’.
The second song of Kindertotenlieder, ‘Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen', has the voice dead-centre with two impassioned passages testing the singer's high register. The eloquent tension in Schwanewilms's timbre is equalled only by Christa Ludwig with Karajan conducting. The current singer and her subito pp at the word “Sterne” is certainly not eclipsed by any other. ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ sets problems at both ends. Schwanewilms is no contralto but she certainly has a serviceable lower register; she is fluent in the narrative passages but loses control in the outburst of “O du, o du, des Vaters Zelle, ach, zu schnelle, zu schnell erloschner Freuden sein”. In her booklet note the singer asks: “How to sing Kindertotenlieder without your voice choking with anger and pain”. Well, she fails to provide the answer but what is lost in management is gained in spontaneity. The direction Mit ruhelos schmerzvollen Ausdruck which heads the stormy fifth song suggests the grotesque level of remorse suffered by the parent before the onset of consolation in the final lines. The other written contribution by the soprano is a view of the stages of grieving, which she argues is endorsed by the five poems of Kindertotenlieder.
The disc is completed by selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which reflect Mahler's life experiences and their transposition into music: the misery of starvation in ‘Das irdische Leben’, the everyday prevalence of parting in ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ and the dominance of military sounds, rhythms and colours in ‘Aus! Aus!’.
There are one or two hints of artificiality in the recording but this is a generous piece of enterprise from Onyx and a welcome perspective on an important time in musical history. The booklet includes texts and translations.