Mahler's Decade in Vienna: Singers of the Court Opera, 1897-1907 (review)
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Mahler’s Decade in Vienna: Singers of the Court Opera, 1897–1907

Composer/conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) continues to fascinate, and for good reason. His biography smacks of a sentimental novel whose back-cover blurb might read: "After many trials and turmoil the legendary composer/conductor dies of heart disease at the height of his career." Mahler had a habit of becoming romantically involved with his female singers, and affairs are documented with several of them on these discs (including Anna Bahr-Mildenburg and Selma Kurz). He finally married the young and beautiful Alma Schindler, but tragedy struck when—almost simultaneously—their beloved daughter Maria died in early childhood and his fatal illness was diagnosed. Today his symphonies, with their incomparable blend of melancholy, folkishness, and grandiosity, occupy a unique position in the repertory; although he wrote no operas per se, the vocal element of his symphonic output and his many songs provide the opera singer with a wealth of material from which to draw.

In 1897 Mahler left his position in Hamburg to go to the Vienna Court Opera (renamed the State Opera in 1918), as an assistant conductor, knowing that the current director, Wilhelm Jahn, had serious eye problems. Mahler made his [End Page 464] debut on 11 May 1897 conducting Wagner's Lohengrin and within a few months he assumed control of the directorship. He wasted no time in attempting to reshape the Court Opera to meet his ideals. He had a vision of total theater, concerned that stage sets should not just provide backdrops but integrate with the action and singing that evolved from the text. In such a high-profile position Mahler was able to do much to raise performance standards on the operatic stage at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the renowned artists he had inherited were Marie Renard, Irene Abendroth, Ellen Brandt-Forster, Sophie Sedlmair, Lola Beeth, Elise Elizza, Edyth Walker, Hermann Winkelmann, Ernest Van Dyck, Andreas Dippel, Fritz Schrödter, Theodore Reichmann, and Wilhelm Hesch.

Ward Marston's CD anthology, Mahler's Decade in Vienna, happily includes several fascinating recordings of these earlier artists, while concentrating mainly on the singers that Mahler brought to Vienna as he attempted to change performance practices according to his passionately held revisionist ideas. Renard, Abendroth, Van Dyck, and Dippel soon chose to leave Vienna, but Sedlmair and Winkelmann continued to perform major dramatic roles under Mahler for several years. Elizza's career expanded in Vienna, and Reichmann, Schrödter, and Hesch continued to perform regularly. Edyth Walker sang important roles under Mahler, but conflicts developed; she left Vienna in 1903 and went on to have a great international career. The first group of important new singers included Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, Selma Kurz, Frances Saville, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, Grete Forst, Margarethe (Rita) Michalek, Berta Förster-Lauterer, Laura Hilgermann, Hermine Kittel, Leo Slezak, Erik Schmedes, Franz Naval, Leopold Demuth, and Richard Mayr. They can all be heard on these CDs, and comparisons can be drawn, although it is difficult to do so on such scant evidence.

This remarkable anthology contains 234 minutes of singing by sixty-eight singers on seventy-nine recordings. Many of these recordings exist only in unique copies and have never been transferred to CD before. It is to the credit of the international collecting community that the owners were willing to share these valuable treasures. I suspect that few people have ever heard recordings by Rita Michalek, Charlotte von Seebeök, Ottilie Fellwock, Frieda Felser, Josie Petru, Jenny Pohlner, Georg Maikl, Benedikt Felix, Moritz Frauscher, Alexander Haydter, Hans Melms, Anton Moser, Franz Pacal, Carl Reich, Julius Spielmann, Gerhard Stehmann, or Wilhelm Wissiak. Furthermore, the recordings Marston chose for the better-known singers are often great rarities. Kurz is represented by a 1900 Berliner Faust excerpt, a 1902 Zonophone of "Ernani involami," and a 1902 G&T from Ballo in maschera. These all capture the beautiful soprano in her mid-twenties, and we can readily understand why Mahler was so enraptured by her.

Actually, the velvety-voiced Kurz, with her endless trill, was the type of instrumental artist who would seem to have repelled Mahler. After...