A Brothers Grimm gothic horror tale set to music

Mahler began to write the text of Das klagende Lied (The Song of Lamentation) at age 18, inspired by the Brothers Grimm gothic horror tale “Der singende Knochen” (“The Singing Bone”) during 1878 – his final year in the Conservatory in Vienna.

After graduation, Mahler composed the music, completing it in 1880. He then entered the competition for the Beethoven Prize of the Society of Friends of Music, hoping to win (he did not) the funds needed to produce the gigantic work: a huge undertaking calling for a massive orchestra, chorus, and soloists, the entire work taking over an hour to perform.

The first performance took place in 1901, with Mahler himself conducting, by which time the composer had subjected his original score to some significant downsizing.

This being a youthful work – notwithstanding the multiple revisions undertaken by Mahler – the composer’s trademark signatures are there, including the excesses that he outgrew by virtue of trial and error mid-career.

The orchestration is imaginative, massive, heavy on brass and percussion with plenty of late Romantic bombastic outbursts, the vocal writing calling for Wagnerian-sized voices capable of cutting through the thickness of the amassed orchestral forces of both the on-stage and off-stage ensembles. And yet the soloists’ music is expressive, with the high soprano Brigitte Poschner-Klebel getting the best singing morsels.

In the Orfeo label (ORF-C210021) CD released by NAXOS the late maestro Michael Gielen valiantly leads the Orff Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Wiener Singakademie chorus with an impressive group of artists: baritone Manfred Hemm, tenor David Rendall, David; mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovšek, and soprano Brigitte Poschner-Klebel.

This is an exciting performance of a rarely performed work worthy of reexamination, as any Mahler should be.

Rafael de Acha    www.RafaelMusicNotes.com