Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Five songs

Judith und Holofernes, by Gustav Klimt, 1901 (detail)

I've written before of my struggle to appreciate art songs (see "The Songs of Erich Korngold and Reynaldo Hahn"). Such an appreciation would seem to be an obvious extension of my enjoyment of opera (at least, of certain operas). And yet I remain stubbornly resistant to lieder (at least, to certain lieder).

Songs accompanied by orchestra would seem to provide a natural bridge from opera to lieder. In fact, as a follow-up to my recent post on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, this post began as an introduction some of my other favorite orchestral lieder.

But along the way something funny happened. Some lieder exist in two versions, one with orchestra and another with piano. My assumption was that I would always prefer the more opera-like orchestral version, especially if I was already familiar with it. As critic Richard Wigmore has written, ". . .piano versions tend to stand in relation to the orchestral as a pen-and-ink sketch does to a painting." [1]

But it turned out that my preference wasn't always that clear-cut. This became apparent when I listened to the orchestral version of Franz Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" (Night and Dreams), and compared it to the piano version. The song, published in 1825, was orchestrated in 1914 by Max Reger. To my ears, the orchestral version is overdone; it lacks the delicacy and intimacy of the piano version. [2]

So I started exploring, and was surprised by what I found. Below I offer five favorite lieder in both orchestral and piano versions, so that you can make the same comparisons that I did. In a reversal of the perhaps expected order I've placed the orchestral version first, followed by the piano version, because that's how I first became familiar with most of these songs.

Of course, it's not a contest: for many lieder I can appreciate both versions for the different qualities they reveal. And much depends on the interpretive sensitivity of the performers. But I was surprised at how often the piano version held its own with (and in some cases seemed superior to) the orchestral version.

Richard Wagner: "Der Engel" from Wesendonck Lieder (1857-58)

Richard Wagner in 1860.

The Wesendonck Lieder are usually performed and recorded with orchestral accompaniment, but they were originally composed for piano and voice (the first title was Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme, or "Five poems for female voice"). The poems were written by Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Wagner's patron Otto Wesendonck. At the time the songs were composed Wagner and Mathilde were carrying on an affair.

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Sohn, 1850 (detail).

Someone I know once said that lieder are bad Romantic poetry set to music. While that comment isn't completely fair, Mathilde Wesendonck's poems have been singled out for special scorn. Baritone Matthias Goerne has said,
"The worst doggerel Schubert ever set is better than the texts of Mathilde Wesendonck. It's all a mishmash of vague sentiment. . .But Wagner was intoxicated when he wrote the songs. . .The atmosphere he creates convinces you that you're hearing about soul-shattering things. His rapture overpowers the words." [2]
The "great man's rapture overpowering woman's vague mishmash of sentiment" narrative invites skepticism. In the hothouse atmosphere created by their affair (the third of the songs is actually entitled "Im Treibhaus" ("In the Hothouse")), Wagner may have been convinced that Mathilde's poetry was more profound than it reads today, at least in English translation. But obviously, he was responding to something in the words. The composer who was so unsatisfied by the literary efforts of others that he wrote the libretti for all of his operas himself somehow deemed Mathilde's "vague mishmash of sentiment" worthy of being graced by his music. (And as we all know, a great lyric is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition for a great song.)

The sound-world of the songs echoes that of Tristan und Isolde, which Wagner was also composing at the time. (In fact, two of the songs are subtitled "Studie zu Tristan und Isolde.") Wagner, with his typical egomania, probably saw himself and Mathilde in the story of the legendary lovers whose passion transcended all conventional constraints of honor and duty. Curiously, given how Wagnerian the orchestral versions sound, the songs were actually orchestrated by another composer, Felix Mottl, two decades after their initial composition.

The opening song of the sequence, "Der Engel," sung by Janet Baker with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult:


In der Kindheit frühen Tagen
Hört ich oft von Engeln sagen,
Die des Himmels hehre Wonne
Tauschen mit der Erdensonne,

Daß, wo bang ein Herz in Sorgen
Schmachtet vor der Welt verborgen,
Daß, wo still es will verbluten,
Und vergehn in Tränenfluten,

Daß, wo brünstig sein Gebet
Einzig um Erlösung fleht,
Da der Engel niederschwebt,
Und es sanft gen Himmel hebt.

Ja, es stieg auch mir ein Engel nieder,
Und auf leuchtendem Gefieder
Führt er, ferne jedem Schmerz,
Meinen Geist nun himmelwärts!

In childhood's early days
I often heard talk of angels,
Who would exchange Heaven's bliss
For the Earth's sunlight,

So that, when a heart in sorrow
Languishes hidden from the world,
So that, when it wishes quietly to grieve,
And melt away in a flood of tears,

So that, when it prays fervently
Only for release from life,
Then the angel descends
And gently raises it to Heaven.

Yes, an angel has also descended to me,
And on shining wings
Bears aloft, far from every pain,
My soul now heavenward!

"Der Engel," sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux accompanied by Daniel Blumenthal:

Although the piano version foregrounds the singer's voice, to me it seems that the orchestra has a richness and emotional effect in this song that the piano can't match.

Richard Strauss: "Morgen!" from Vier Lieder (Four Songs), Op. 27 (1894)

Richard Strauss about 1890.

The Vier Lieder were written as a wedding present from Strauss to his bride, soprano Pauline de Ahna. They were married in September 1894 after a summer during which Strauss conducted Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival with Pauline in the role of Elisabeth, whose pure love and self-sacrifice offer redemption to the hero. (By all accounts Pauline was not a particularly self-sacrificing person.)

"Morgen!", the final song of the series, sets a poem by Strauss's acquaintance John Henry Mackay. As Alan Blyth has written, this is "a song of deep rapture," in which two lovers find their joy reflected in the sun, earth and sea. [4] These songs were originally written for voice and piano, but Strauss ultimately orchestrated three of them, "Morgen!" just a few years after its initial composition.

Pauline de Ahna as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival, 1894. 
Photograph by A. Pieperhoff.

"Morgen!" sung by Gundula Janowitz with the Academy of London conducted by Richard Stamp:


Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen,
Und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
Wird uns, di Glücklichen, sie wieder einin
Inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde.

Und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
Werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen.
Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen Schauen,
Und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen.

And tomorrow again the sun will shine,
and I will follow the path
that will again unite us in our happiness
Amid this sun-breathing earth.

And to the shore, those wide blue waves,
we shall quietly and slowly climb down.
Silently we shall gaze into each other's eyes,
and upon us will fall the wordless silence of happiness.

"Morgen!" sung by Lucia Popp with Irwin Gage in Strauss's original piano arrangement:

I love how in both versions the singer enters as if the opening of the song had been a pause in mid-conversation (". . .And tomorrow. . ."). And how in the piano version the accompaniment falls silent at the words "Stumm werden wir. . ." (Silently we shall. . .) If for me this song's sense of both stillness and exaltation is more fully expressed in the orchestral version, both singers indeed convey a sense of rapture.

Gustav Mahler: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" from Fünf Rückertlieder (Five Rückert Songs, 1901-02)

Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik, 1902 (detail)

The summer of 1901 was the first Mahler spent in his new villa among the trees on the shore of the Wörthersee in Austria. At the time the composer was also the musical director of the Vienna Court Opera; his tenure was stormy and the workload was heavy, so he relished the summer months he spent away from the city at his quiet composing retreat.

Retreat from the clamor of the world is the explicit subject of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world), one of several poems by Friedrich Rückert that Mahler set that summer.

"Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" performed by Janet Baker with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli:


Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world,
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing of me for so long,
that it may well believe I am dead!

To me it is of not the slightest concern
Whether it thinks me dead,
I cannot deny it,
for in truth I am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet place!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song!

In 1998 the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt (later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), accompanied by the pianist Roger Vignoles, performed the Five Rückert Songs in a recital at London's Wigmore Hall. (My partner and I attended a recital she gave in Berkeley's Hertz Hall a few years later that was one of the most most affecting live performances I'll ever witness; "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" was the final song in that program.) From the Wigmore Hall recital:

The extraordinarily poignant quality of Lorraine Hunt's performance is marred only by intrusive audience applause at the end (this song was performed as the final song in the full cycle), so from the embedded video I've cut out the applause. If you follow the link, I recommend that you pause the video at the 6:44 mark.

Fortunately there is no need to choose between Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt; I would not want to be without either of these profoundly moving performances.

Alban Berg: "Traumgekrönt" from Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs, 1905-1908)

Alban Berg.

Alban Berg was in his early 20s when he composed the Sieben frühe Lieder under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg. The original compositions were piano lieder; two decades later Berg revised and orchestrated the songs. They are strongly influenced by Wagner, Mahler, and (especially) Richard Strauss, but also show the incorporation of atonal techniques favored by Schoenberg.

But these songs aren't, or at least don't sound to me, entirely atonal. In fact, in Berg's setting of one of Rainer Maria Rilke's early Traumgekrönt poems (it is No. 2 of the "Lieben" series) there is what sounds like a shift from minor to major at the words "Und dann, dann kamst du mir. . .," (And then, then you came to me. . .) and again a few lines later at "Du kamst. . ." (You came. . .).

Those apparent shifts in key are not as striking in the piano version, and of course a composer can create fewer effects of tone color with a piano than with an orchestra. As a result, though, to my ears the piano versions sound less radical than the orchestral versions. I first encountered these pieces in a recital by Renée Fleming; with piano accompaniment the Berg songs did not seem wildly out of place when performed along with 19th-century lieder; with orchestra they have a different character: they sound dark, eerie, and very modern.

"Traumgekrönt" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado:


Das war der Tag der weißen Chrysanthemen,
Mir bangte fast vor seiner Pracht. . .
Und dann, dann kamst du mir die Seele nehmen
Tief in der Nacht. . .

Mir war so bang, und du kamst lieb und leise,
Ich hatte grad im Traum an dich gedacht.
Du kamst, und leis' wie eine Märchenweise
Erklang die Nacht.

That was the day of white chrysanthemums;
I was almost fearful of their splendor. . .
And then, then you came to take my soul
Deep in the night. . .

I felt so anxious, and you came sweetly and softly;
I had just been dreaming of you.
You came, and softly, as in a fairy tale,
the night reverberated.

"Traumgekrönt" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by Bengt Forsberg:

Erich Korngold: "Liebesbriefchen" from Sechs einfache Lieder (Six simple songs, 1911-1913)

Erich Korngold.

Amazingly, Korngold was only 14 when he began writing the Sechs einfache Lieder. As a child prodigy he had been taken at age 8 by his father to play for Mahler, who declared him a genius and encouraged him to take lessons with the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. By the time Korngold entered his teens he was famous. His ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman, orchestrated by Zemlinsky) had been given a command performance at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910 for the Emperor's name-day, and his Piano Sonata No. 2 was premiered by Artur Schnabel. Richard Strauss said, "One’s first reaction that these compositions are by a child are those of awe and concern that so precocious a genius should follow its normal development. . .This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!" [5]

"Liesbesbriefchen" is the setting of a poem by Elisabeth Honold, about whom I am unable to find any information. Barbara Hendricks performing the song with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst:


Fern von dir denk' ich dein,
Einsam bin ich, doch mir blieb
treue Lieb'.
Was ich denk', bist nur, nur du,
Sehe stets hold und licht
dein Gesicht.
Und in mir immer zu
tönest du.
Bist's allein, die die Welt
mir erhellt.
Ich bin dein, Liebchen fein,
denke mein, denk' mein!


Far from you, I think of you,
I am lonely, but my love
remains true.
I think only, only of you,
my heart's peace.
Before me ever I see your bright and
lovely face.
And within me I always
hear your voice.
It is you alone who lights up
my world.
I am yours, my dearest love,
think of me, think of me!

For me it's difficult to untangle my preference for Anne Sofie von Otter's vocal performance of this song from my feeling that while the orchestration is lush, the piano accompaniment has an intimacy which better matches that of the poem.

So I think that Richard Wigmore's comparison of piano versions to a sketch and orchestral versions to a painting isn't really the best metaphor, or perhaps it has more shades of meaning than he intended. For one thing he seems to be implying a value judgment: drawings, he seems to say, are a lesser form than painting, as a piano arrangement is just a diminished version of the orchestral. There are indeed songs, such as "Der Engel" or "Morgen!", for which the orchestra powerfully conveys the sweeping, surging emotions. But what about songs, such as "Nacht und Träume" or "Liebesbriefchen," where the piano version expresses the desired sense of intimacy, and the orchestral version seems overblown?

Drawings are an artistic form in their own right, not just a lesser version of painting. A sketch is simply the right medium for some subjects; and as I've learned, sometimes the piano version is right for a song.

Update 16 August 2017: I wanted to alert readers in the SF Bay Area that LIEDER ALIVE! will be opening their 2017-18 Liederabend Series  with a Mahlerfest concert, featuring Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet performing transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo of three of Mahler's orchestral lieder cycles: Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder. I'm very much looking forward to the concert performance and the upcoming recording of these versions, which promise to "combine the lushness of the orchestral versions with the intimacy of chamber music."

Along with performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky, Kindra Scharich's opening concert of the 2016-17 Liederabend Series and her performance for SF Music Day were among my Favorites of 2016.

  1. Richard Wigmore, "Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder: which recording is best?" Gramophone Magazine, 21 July 2014: https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/mahler%E2%80%99s-r%C3%BCckert-lieder-which-recording-is-best
  1. You can hear the piano version of "Nacht und Träume" performed by Elly Ameling with Dalton Baldwin in my recent post on Terence Davies' film A Quiet Passion; the orchestral version can be heard on YouTube in a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado.
  1. Quoted in Matthew Gurewitsch, "Why Shouldn't Men Sing Romantic Drivel, Too?" New York Times, 6 Nov. 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/06/arts/music/why-shouldnt-men-sing-romantic-drivel-too.html
  1. Alan Blyth, "Strauss: Ten Songs," in Song on Record 1. Lieder, Alan Blyth, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 316.
  1. Quoted in Brendan G. Carroll. "Korngold, Erich Wolfgang." Oxford Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15390.

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