Christina Gansch and Malcolm Martineau in Zemlinsky, Berg, and Mahler at Wigmore Hall

Song in particular and vocal music more generally were of great importance to Zemlinsky, Berg, and Mahler. In Zemlinsky’s case, more than half of his songs were composed in a short period from 1898 to 1901, these Walzer-Gesänger (1898) after Tuscan folksongs (translated by Ferdinand Gregorovius) included. One falls, perhaps as much out of habit as conviction, upon the word ‘Brahmsian’, but are they really, the obvious Liebeslieder precedent notwithstanding? There are certainly elements that look so on the page; perhaps they would sound more so in certain performances. Here—only here—I felt at times a mismatch between vocal performance and material. Perhaps it was more a matter of warming up, of a larger scale of performance than might have been ideal. Christina Gansch was certainly communicative, though, not only in diction but also in meaning. Or perhaps it was my expectations that were at fault, since I responded more keenly to the darker (within bounds) ‘Ich gehe des Nachts’, not least to its piano writing as vividly conveyed by Malcolm Martineau. The sense of mystery and ultimate communion in ‘Blaues Sternlein’ hinted at more, at a world to come both for Zemlinsky and ‘Austrian’ music more generally.

Until he took composition lessons with Schoenberg, Berg was above all a composer of Lieder. It is not quite true to say that he was exclusively so, though in 1910 Schoenberg told his publisher that, ‘extraordinarily gifted’ though Berg was when he came to him, ‘his imagination apparently could not work on anything but songs. Even the piano accompaniments to them were songlike. He was absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme.’ We should be grateful indeed to Schoenberg for his instruction. What would Wozzeck, let alone the Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6, be without the instrumental forms in which Schoenberg had compelled Berg to write? Given the quality of the Seven Early Songs (1905-8)—written during Berg’s studies with Schoenberg, albeit first in harmony, counterpoint, and music theory, only from 1907 in composition—one can well understand why Berg might simply have wished to carry on in that vein, though here already the piano writing is quite different from that in his truly ‘early’ songs.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the Zemlinsky songs—I was grateful above all for the opportunity to hear them—Berg immediately took us into a different world, darker, more complex, more alluring. The harmonies of ‘Nacht’, voice almost as crucial to their sounding as piano, form and shape the song itself. Whatever the truth of Schoenberg’s retrospective criticism, it cannot have been intended for this song. A message both Tristan-esque and Nietzschean in words and music both warned and enticed: ‘Trinke Seele! trinke Einsamkeit! O gib acht! gib acht!’ Gansch seemed liberated by the greater musical possibilities, each song conceived in collaboration with Martineau with remarkable attention to detail, out of which was formed a singular whole. ‘Die Nachtigall’ took shape and indeed flight from its immanent growth in expressive range, reaching an ecstatic vocal conclusion such as to have Martineau’s piano epilogue bathed in Bergian afterglow.  The little red fire (‘Feuerlein rot’) of ‘Im Zimmer’ fairly crackled before our ears, vocal and piano parts alike subtly suggestive of image and import. A richly voluptuous ‘Liebesode’ became breathless in more than one sense, serving aptly as prelude to ‘Sommertage’, whose ‘image after image comes to you and quite fills you’.

A short break of a minute or two was just the thing to prepare for the different world again of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, its naïveté never without a suspicion of knowing, alienation its lot, its tragedy, but also its attraction. Gansch captured to a tee the humour of Mahler’s absurdist neo-Bachian melismata in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ Mahler should never, arguably can never, be read on one level. ‘Das irdische Leben’ was well characterised, its horror all the truer for the lack of hysteria. Kindertotenlieder already seemed close. A sardonic account of ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, the piano properly played straight, prepared the way for the ambiguities of ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ and a dream-like, hallucinatory ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, its wan, deathly piano prelude as Mahlerian as any orchestra. After that, ‘Rheinlegendchen’ offered necessary relief prior to the epiphanic mysteries of ‘Das himmlische Leben’, heard far more frequently in its orchestral guise as final movement to the Fourth Symphony. Already in its opening stanza, the subtle range of Gansch’s vocal colours suggested nothing was quite so simple as it might seem. Childhood, after all, is always an adult idea. ‘Sankt Martha die Köchin muss sein!’ seemed as strange a revelation as ever, yet one could not but nod assent, both to the claim and to Mahler’s path to transcendence. For an encore, we heard ‘Hans und Grete’, again apparently simple, yet with much beneath the surface. Gansch’s closing smile, very much part of the performance, encapsulated what we had just heard.

Mark Berry

Christina Gansch (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

ZemlinskyWalzer-Gesänge nach toskanischen Volksliedern Op.6; BergSieben frühe Lieder; Mahler – ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, ‘Scheiden und Meiden’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Die himmlische Leben’ (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 10th October 2021.