I’ve been listening to Julie Boulianne’s 2011 CD Mahler Lieder, in the aftermath of a week contemplating the works of Frida Kahlo at the AGO. The show reminds us of the changing role for women in the creative world of art; as a result I can’t help asking related questions about the Mahlers and their interpreters.
Alma Mahler’s place in her husband’s life makes an interesting companion study to that of Kahlo’s life with Diego Rivera, a painter who was more famous than his wife at the time of their deaths in the 1950s; it’s only in the past few decades that Kahlo has emerged from the shadow of her more famous husband to become the more celebrated artist in their family. While Alma Mahler will never displace her husband, it’s worth noting that she was an accomplished composer (even if she only finished a few songs, plus a few fragments) who gave up composition when she married Gustav, at his request. That imposition was likely a factor in their eventual estrangement. Nor was it helpful that Gustav composed the Kindertotenlieder (songs to texts composed by Ruckert after the deaths of two of his children), over Alma’s objections. She saw this as tempting fate, a sentiment that came to a kind of fruition with the death of their daughter Maria just a few years later.
Boulianne’s CD seems to trace the pathway of the Mahler drama. We begin with Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in Arnold Schönberg’s orchestration, then on to the Kindertotenlieder in Reinbert de Leeuw’s orchestration, both featuring Ensemble Orford conducted by Jean-Frainçois Rivest. Finally Boulianne sings five songs of Alma Mahler accompanied by pianist Marc Bourdeau. It’s as if Boulianne takes us into the heart of the Mahler drama.
The CD begins with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, a cycle concerning heart-break that I encountered as accompanist to a baritone, while always avoiding versions sung by a woman even though the text is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for it. Speaking as someone who usually embraces alternative readings & paraphrases –not just Schönberg’s orchestration but anything like this that might give me a better perspective on a work—I am embarrassed to admit my own prejudice, one I didn’t realize I even had. I realize in all the decades I’ve been hearing (or playing) these songs, this is my first time to allow a woman to sing it for me. In context with Frida & Diego, I think I am ready for a new voice.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that there are reasons for this preference, even if they sound like weak rationalizations. Female voices substituted for male in almost any song cycle –especially one with orchestra rather than piano—bring two or three natural advantages.
1) a higher voice usually carries better (especially in a big space), and so is less likely to be drowned out by a big ensemble
2) a higher voice is easier to accompany as a composer because so many voices of an orchestra lie within the normal tessitura of a male singer, making it harder to avoid redundancy with a male singer.
3) [not so sure about this one] I get the impression that all things being equal, women can undertake almost any text or subject, and audiences will accept it, whereas the same doesn’t seem to work in reverse.
And so, when one hears that early autobiographical set sung by a man, it seems to fit well with the voice, in ways that don’t quite work for me when I hear a woman sing it. Or am I just so unaccustomed to the female voice that I need to give it (and them) the chance to win me over?
I know that Boulianne sounds marvellous, indeed almost too good. When a man sings those last notes of the final song they may sound almost as though the voice is breaking, on that low A. It’s not a place to show off your good low notes, but that’s what I thought Boulianne was doing. She sang it perfectly, notes that I’ve heard sung without so much assurance from men. But then again, this too is an interpretive option that’s valid.
While we’re speaking of voices, the work sounds very new in Arnold Schönberg’s orchestration. There’s a quality to the music that has a distinctly klezmer flavour I’ve never encountered in the music before, possibly because in this small ensemble we get clarinets with the voice, a playful quality that’s erased by the big orchestra.
The next part of the CD is the Kindertotenlieder, and while we’re talking about prejudices, I have to admit I have never allowed these pieces into my life. I don’t really share Alma’s misgivings –that the subject tempts fate—so much as a deeper sense that the subject is wrong. Perhaps Ruckert needed to write these poems, which is one thing –the intimacy of writing about your loss—but to make something to be performed? I simply find the works inappropriate & troubling. I looked at Frida Kahlo’s paintings of her suffering, and felt she had the right to proclaim her authentic suffering. But to sing of such things? They’ve seemed like a series of strange and even bizarre responses to such powerful experiences.
But i am open to persuasion.
And so, again, here’s a woman, the walking analog to Alma the bereft mother, singing these songs. Odd as Gustav was to write these songs, if anyone has the right to sing them this time, in context with the other cycle (that I experienced as something of an appropriation): it would have to be Boulianne. She is my first, even though I know there have been so many others. I find her voice pushing buttons for me, reminding me often of Janet Baker (my favourite voice in “Der Abschied” with Bernard Haitinck), with that beautiful colour that goes right through me. This cycle is also recorded in a chamber version. I find it less over-powering than the versions with orchestra, which as I mentioned, I have never yet embraced in my life. I have to be honest this way, because, beautiful as the performances are, I am suspect. I love Mahler but don’t know this music. I have a Dover piano score of three Mahler song cycles (namely the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde) that has never really been cracked for those middle pages. And so, take my recommendation with a grain of salt because obviously I don’t know this music. But it’s as though what won me over to the Kindertotenlieder was Boulianne’s reading of the earlier cycle.
No wait, that’s not true. Come to think of it I only really listened to her Kindertotenlieder after shuddering, and jumping to the last part of the CD. That’s really the clincher for me that led me to double back, playing the whole thing. Because in the third part of the CD we finally hear Alma Mahler, the thwarted composer who gave up her career before it began to appease her husband. When she began to be estranged from him –eventually having a love affair—the older composer repented and helped her publish a few songs.
I’d known she wrote songs, but didn’t expect to like them so much.
Of the five songs, one seems particularly intriguing as a feminist meditation upon the world of music, namely “In meines Vaters Garten”, or “in my Father’s garden”. The song and any other music from Alma Mahler would be like a foray into a male place, such as her father’s garden. In the text, a king has three daughters, each of whom dreams about a world of the achievements of men. This startlingly beautiful melody seems to situate us in a vicarious world, where everything achievable is male, while the females only observe and dream of what the men will do. I can’t help but think that for Alma Mahler, this song was a hugely ironic commentary upon the entire enterprise, and perhaps the trap (at least partly of her own making) in which she found herself. Did Gustav get it, I wonder? This performance (by another artist) gives you some idea of what a great song Alma composed, and indeed, what might have been if she’d not abandoned composition.
After hearing Boulianne’s authoritative readings of Alma’s songs I doubled back to hear the Kindertotenlieder, and now have made my peace with the cycle. In purely therapeutic terms I am grateful, that i’ve now opened my heart to these songs. All three cycles on the CD are in some respect new territory for me, speaking as someone overcoming prejudices. The combination of repertoire moved me very much, particularly the meta-drama I’ve alluded to.
I recommend the recording without reservation.