mahler for lovers | by christoph becher

the stage consisted of a table for two in a tiny greek restaurant next to the café museum on vienna’s karlsplatz; the show took place in 1994. i had wanted to meet bertl mütter, one of the city’s most exciting musicians and performers. already at the first glass of retsina, we discovered that we both loved gustav mahler’s music. we spent the conversation singing our favorite passages to each other and suddenly bertl broke out singing half of the first movement of the fifth all by himself: the lead voices, secondary voices, woodwinds, strings, brass—everything came alive before my ears, the sound of an entire orchestra emanating from the throat of this one little rascal from steyr.

he is a soloist in the broadest sense of the term. one who works best and most happily alone. sure, he’s collaborated quite successfully with others on various projects—for example, with erika stucky, christoph cech or anthony braxton—but the center of his craft is solo performance, improvisation, the engagement with musical texts. the energy released in the process was so immense that it required more than his primary instrument, the trombone; mütter could sing with the same sense of sovereignty, and if the subdued sound of the tenor horn happened to be what was needed, he had no problem playing that instrument either.

for about a decade now, mütter has been dabbling in the great works of his ancestors. the first and greatest challenge was schubert, who was so skilled at lending timeless expression to the romantic sentiment of abandonment that the austrians (and others, too, but first and foremost the austrians) love him faithfully for it to this day. it took courage to perform “winter journey” at the konzerthaus vienna in 2001. and, as is always the case with any good piece of “music about music”, what emerged was a continuation of the tradition, a contemporization of the music that cuts closer to the quick the more time you spend with it.

this must be the way mahler was for mütter. the longer you hum to yourself the sixth step that occurs at the word “nach” in the first of the “songs on the death of children” which feels immeasurably big following the long chromatic run, the more painfully this comforting cadence digs deep into the heart. at some point, mu?tter must had to have taken on these melodies, and the opportunity presented itself during the mahler season 2010-11. that’s when his “mütterliederlullabies (mahler adaptations)” came into the world, premiered on july 15, 2010 at the musikforum viktring in klagenfurt.

mütter plays the five “songs on the death of children” from mahler’s cycle on the trombone, following the original measure for measure, mostly according to the vocal score, but also reverting to accompanying parts, bass runs, or harmonies. in this way, the auditory distinction between vocal and instrumental parts is called to the fore. mütter directs attention to a horizontal structure in which instrumental interjections between strophes forfeit their organizational function. the result is one consistent melodic flow absent all hierarchical gradations. in the first song of the cycle, “now the sun will rise as brightly”, mütter plays the line “you must not enclose the night within you” before shifting for four measures into an eighthnote movement that mahler had assigned to the harp, only to then return to the voice part at “… drown in everlasting light”. in mahler, the harp’s eighthnote movement is carried further by the first violin and the flute that fill the transition to the reprise strophe “a little lamp went out in my tent”. mütter places this on the trombone and thus plays through the central break twice: vocal part, interlude, and the foreshadowing of this material are all integrated into one voice. in mütter’s interpretation, mahler seems to have made manifest wagner’s utopic “endless melody”.

conversely, in the third song, “when your dear mother” is deconstructed by dissecting motives, creating pauses that make it difficult to follow the song’s flow. in mütter, all that remains of the first line “when your dear mother comes in at the door / and i turn my head to look at her / my gaze does not fall first upon her face / but on that spot beside the threshhold” is “when your dear mother … i turn my head … gaze does not … her face / but on that spot, … threshhold …” like in berio’s “sinfonia”, the original is only present at a subterranean level. what mu?tter says about this is that he “peeled these five infinitely tragic songs […] from their shell, in many places, leaving only a skeleton, where notes are missing or merely insinuated (as if they had broken off): and it’s about the fundamental concept of loss, tearing out the next pages in the book of life.”

the intermezzi between the five songs play a major role in this: free improvisations that build a bridge to the next song.and these touch upon motives from the rest of mahler’s oeuvre. mütter tells us: “contradicting the lamentations (though never in a sentimental way!) with material that is primarily either happy or grotesque is necessarily a major constitutive element of dramaturgy, and the wunderhorn songs, with their provenance in a carefree (?) world of child’s play are particularly wellsuited for this, especially when they are played in a playful way [...]. but which of these songs will come flying at me in concert always depends on what occurs to me in the moment”.

playing “what occurs to him in the moment” gives mütter an ample degree of freedom. on this recording, the “wunderhorn songs” do fly by: in the first intermezzo “cuckoo has fallen to his death,” in the second “st. anthony of padua’s sermon to the fisch,” in the third “praise to high reason” and in the fourth “little rhine legend” along with the folk song “now i graze by the neckar”. but these flying objects aren’t always immediately identifiable. whereas “cuckoo has fallen to his death” predominates at the center of the intermezzo—not only with its high profile of the primary motive at the beginning of the piece, but also with the vocal melody that assumes a full twominute spot—the “sermon to the fish” remains barely perceptible; mütter is unequivocal in emphasizing the threefour time, but “barely touches on” the phrases of the original. and it’s fitting in this context that mütter’s improvisational intermezzi on the cd are not at all in the same places as they were for the premiere, where he had drifted in the fourth intermezzo through the “post horn episode” from the third symphony and the adagio from the sixth at the start of the second movement of the seventh which he transitioned with a wink to the second “pilgrim’s chorus” in wagner’s “tannhäuser”. on the cd, the quote from the “little rhine legend” is transformed into the tenor horn theme from the first movement of the seventh. later, mu?tter returns twice to the song on the death of children “now indeed i see” and, on the way out, extends his greetings from the finale of the second and the adagio of the sixth.

the “mütterkinderlieder” are an expression of great love for mahler’s music. already back then, while we were seated at that greek restaurant 16 years ago, it became clear to me that mütter had no desire to share his love for mahler—he wanted to keep it all for himself. that’s how we lovers are. and that’s why he plays the cycle alone. it’s why he comes up with intermezzi that allow him to take mahler—all of him—in his arms.

christoph becher, 2010 | translated by lilian friedberg


cd rk 3009 (2011) | raumklang edition modern

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