Recordings of Das Lied von der Erde have been coming fast and furious lately, most of them lacking either a good tenor, a good alto, a good conductor, or some some combination of the three. Here, finally, we have a performance in which just about everything goes right, and it’s all the more remarkable for being recorded live (before a thankfully quiet audience).
The performance isn’t quite perfect. Tenor Toby Spence doesn’t sound ideally comfortable singing in German, but his clear, open voice rides the orchestral climaxes effortlessly, and he projects an aptly crazy attitude in the opening “Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery.” Where else, for example, will you hear a singer willing to take such a risk with that big portamentoRead more slide at the song’s climax? A little ensemble untidiness here and there is a small price to pay for this kind of spontaneity and commitment, and he’s just as good in his remaining songs.
Sarah Connolly also has an iffy moment or two. For example, she fudges the vocal line in the first verse of “Of Beauty,” but these points are very minor and easily forgiven in live performance. Her “Der Abschied” is special. Conductor Nézet-Séguin gives her lots of extra time in the recitatives, particularly the one after the central orchestral interlude, and the result is spellbindingly wonderful. Everything that she does reveals thoughtfulness and intelligence in her treatment of the text. Conductor and soloist adopt a more traditionally fulsome approach to the concluding apotheosis, disregarding Mahler’s soft dynamics, but it’s very beautifully done all the same.
Nézet-Séguin deserves a huge amount of credit for delivering a performance that’s so consistently spontaneous, but also extremely well played and convincingly idiomatic. This performance may not eclipse the best of the reference recordings (Haitink, Klemperer), but it’s certainly the finest version of Das Lied to come along in quite a while, and with excellent live sonics I suspect that most Mahlerians will listen to it repeatedly with pleasure.