A performance of six “military songs” from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn provided an opportunity to enjoy the dramatic singing of Austrian baritone, Markus Werba, and to observe the conducting style of Daniele Gatti. performed in Rome by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. The concert was live-streamed to an empty house and the same soloist will join the orchestra this week for a second installment of songs from this cycle, this time focused on nature.

Daniele Gatti conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia | Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

The Youth’s Magic Horn, as the title can be translated into English, contains a half dozen songs that reveal the horrors of war, the ironies of armed conflict as a road to peace, and the devastating impact of military life on relationships. Composing the cycle at the end of the 19th century, Mahler drew on folk songs collected (and sometimes created) by Romantic standard-bearers Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, both close relatives of two of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved candidates, nearly a century earlier.

Werba’s passionately operatic personality rendered the lyrics from odd bits of war memorabilia to intense expressions of individual experience, infused equally with wit and spine-tingling cries of pain and despair. Unlike Lieder recitalists who partner piano accompanists, Mahler singers must project against – and at the same time in harmony with – a full orchestra. This means the singer must not only have sublime artistry, but also an abundance of moxie. To this, Werba adds a delightful variety of moods, colors, and inflections. The elevation of his voice on the word "Rosengarten" in Der Schildwache Nachtlied was simply heavenly.

This cycle is an amazing work of art, expressed with deep feeling by the soloist. Each song has its own orchestral flavor, crafted with an intriguing use of instrumental colors that, at the same time, support and question the text. Presented here in an order that reflects neither the dates of composition nor the usual sequence, each selection is a carefully crafted gem that can be viewed as an object of artistic beauty or the jagged point of a deadly spear.

Markus Werba and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia | Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

These extreme contrasts were shockingly apparent in Werba’s intense and open-hearted singing from the very first song on the program, Revelge (Revielle). The happy soldier, merrily marching off to war and blowing a kiss to his sweetheart, is suddenly shot, in the second verse. The narrative spirals downhill from there for seven horrifying stanzas culminating in a vision of mocking skeletons and other grotesqueries, the dark side of Romantic Idealism.  

Gatti established a riveting connection between orchestra and soloist, bringing out shining performances in short but essential passages such as the horns and trumpet in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. The conductor hunched over the players like a stern gremlin, his expression conveying the focus and seriousness of the text, closing his eyes during the ominous final “Gute Nacht” of Des Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy).

Des Knaben Wunderhorn was the hearty filling in a military musical sandwich. The first work on the program was Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, although no orchestra that I’ve heard has ever played it with the intensity it deserves. The concert ended with Haydn’s Symphony no. 100 in G major, “Military”, which, in comparison with the Mahler, was a romp in the park. Gatti’s conducting here was completely relaxed; at times, he just stood there, hands at his side. With a smile on his lips, the concert concluded.


 This performance was reviewed from the IDAGIO live video stream