MAHLER:  Various vocal/orchestral works used as soundtrack for the film Bride of the Wind, performed by RenČe Fleming, soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist; Vienna Philharmonic Orch. cond. by Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado. Also original music composed by Stephen Endelman
DG 469 584 (F) (DDD) TT:  78:02

Bride of the Wind, director Bruce Beresford's quasi-biopic about Alma Schindler-Mahler-Gropius-Werfel (1879-1964), got only so-so- reviews in the prints I read, or have received from exchange correspondents. It's mostly about her nine-year marriage to Mahler (1902-11), when she was only 22 and he 20 years older, but also about a passionate three-year affair with the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka that began (officially) a year after Mahler's death; and her final marriage (1929-45) to the novelist-playwright Franz Werfel. Odd, Alma Schindler was a typical, turn-of-the-century, Viennese anti-semite, yet two of her three husbands were Jewish, while she embraced ecumenism. According to Werfel, "Alma's mad last fling" - in 1934, at the age of 55 - was with a 38-year-old priest, Johannes Hollsteiner, who was rumored to be the next Cardinal of Vienna "after Msgr. Innitzer."

You'll need a magnifying glass to read the film's credits on the back cover (and tissues to wipe away tears of laughter): "Paramount Classics and Total Film Group present an Alma UK Ltd. Apollomedia Firelight co-production of a Kolar-Levy production...." Go far enough and you'll find "Screenplay by Marilyn Levy" -- but no source materials, at least not credited here. Actually, there have been two biographies of Alma. The first was the late Karen Monson's gossipy panygeric, Alma Mahler, Muse to Genius, published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1983.  Eight years later the Oxford University Press issued an English translation by R.M. Stock of FranĮoise Giroud's Alma Mahler or the Art of Being Loved, originally issued in France in 1988, which Mahler's most copious biographer, Henri-Louis de la Grange, hailed as "the first biography worthy of its subject, the first fair, accurate, sober, objective, and unprejudiced treatment." It may not be flattering or sparing, but it is a wryly entertaining portrait of woman whose Sense of Self exceeded reálites (and who consumed a bottle of Benedictine a day for the last three decades of her life).

Whatever the film may or may not be, the soundtrack includes excerpts from Mahler's Third, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (all DGG:  No. 3 from Abbado's 1982 Vienna Phil recording, the latter two from Pierre Boulez's 1996 and 1995 recordings with the same orchestra). There is also an extract from Mahler's fifth Rückert-Lied ("Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"), plus two of Alma's 16 published songs -- Mahler insisted she give up composing as a condition of their marriage -- sung elegantly by RenČe Fleming, whom Jean-Yves Thibaudet accompanies in "Laue Sommernacht." In her "Bei dir ist es traut," however, Bride's composer Stephen Endelman has added a gratuitous accompaniment played by the Czech Phil Chamber Orchestra. In the extract from "Ich bin der Welt," he combines Thibaudet's piano with Mahler's scoring for orchestra, retouched by him.  Endelman also arranged a third of Alma's songs, "In meines Vaters Garten," for a duo-piano team, duh, and incorporated a "CafČ Central" and "Arts and Crafts Ball” by János Bihari (not otherwise identified), which Roby Lakatos & Ensemble play (the ampersand is theirs). The rest of Bride's 21 tracks are Endelman's, beginning with an impertinent reworking of the First Symphony's opening movement under the credits.

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentson's timeless putdown of Dan Quayle,"I know Gustav Mahler's music, and Stephen Endelman is no Mahler." Where are the new Korngolds, Steiners and Waxmans when we need them?!?

Yet there are a couple of agreeable surprises on this CD, apart from Alma's songs which, for their period, struck me as pretty generic, or should that be generically pretty? So what that she studied with Schoenberg's teacher, Alexander von Zemlinksy -- to whom, by her own admission, she yielded her virginity, at the same time describing him as "a hideous gnome...short, chinless, toothless, always with the coffeehouse smell on him, unwashed"? The most startling surprise, however, is Boulez's transcendentally passionate "Adagietto" from Mahler's Fifth, despite an extraordinary length of 11:05, as well as the opening five minutes from the same symphony. There isn't enough from his Sixth to draw a conclusion, but I recollect a broadcast sounding overall cut-and-dry-eyed.  Abbado's Third was not a favorite when I first heard it nearly 20 years ago. It was fussy then, and it's fussy still -- sincerely so, but not convincingly, although recorded sound and playing are A-list.

Does this Bride of the Wind CD make me want to see the film? I think I'll wait for it on cable (like The Red Violin) and meanwhile re-read Giroud's "like-it-really-was" biography. But it has made me want get Boulez's Mahler Fifth if the budget ever allows, although I have admirable versions by Abbado and Bernstein/NYP on CD, by Gielen on cassette, and have given away more others than I can remember. Truth is, I find the first and second movements exceedingly much of the same-sounding Sturm und Drang.  Otherwise and finally, here's a prayer that RenČe Fleming can be persuaded to record "Ich bin der Welt" complete, as originally written, and any more of the five Rückert-Lieder she might want to add while her voice is still ripe. Mahler wrote the song-cycle for alto (or baritone), but Jessye Norman negotiated it without strain, and Fleming's low register proves unexpectedly plangent in the mere three lines alloted her by Endelman.

R.D. (Aug. 2002)