This recording features the rare version of this score with baritone replacing the mezzo-soprano. Sony Music have released this CD to mark the company’s centenary.
"Nagano brings to the listener the full depth and breadth to this lapidary score in which the realism of nature and the outdoors speaks with forceful impact from the concert platform."
The story goes that Mahler did not dare to call Das Lied von der Erde a symphony, for fear that being his Ninth it would also be his last as it was also for Beethoven and Bruckner. Even so, he entitled it: “Symphony for tenor, contralto (or baritone) and orchestra” but did not call it “Symphony No. 9”. It is this seeminglyRead more hybrid form that makes Das Lied the epitome of Mahler’s two poles: song and symphony. The hybrid form drew from him some of his most masterful music as it did with Richard Strauss some forty years later in Vier letzte Lieder.
What are those qualities, those ‘basic elements’ of Mahler’s sound-world that captivate people today? It’s an intriguing question. After all these elements are the driving force behind the continuing popularity of the music in concert-halls and on record and the vital spark that gives life and momentum to “Mahler Societies” worldwide: Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Malaysia, New York, Toronto and Vienna. Those elements involve an ingenious combination of early twentieth-century polyphony, late-Romantic pentatonic monumentalism and his ability to recapitulate the “yin and yang” of life. His music has the potential to amaze even a century later.
Das Lied reflects the composer’s perception of time, of life and nature, and demonstrates a peculiar affinity with the arabesques of Orientalism. Contemporaries like Debussy, Ravel, Puccini and Stravinsky were equally seduced by the East. However Mahler made music speak in a language never spoken before - a link to the extremes of humanity, the passage of time, and the wonder of nature woven into the notated score. Mahler redefined music as had Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz centuries before him.
With the aid of sound engineers Jeremy Tusz and Carl Talbot Nagano brings to the listener the full depth and breadth to this lapidary score in which the realism of nature and the outdoors speaks with forceful impact from the concert platform. The first song “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow” (sung by the tenor) ranges from exhilaration to terror. It includes a remarkable passage accentuated by the OSM evoking an animal howling in the moonlight over the grave. It anticipates Schoenberg’s expressionist art. The second song “The Lonely one in Autumn” (sung by baritone) is in D minor, a key laden with autumn tints supported by the veiled, damped sonorities of the violin ostinato and a lyrical solo oboe line by Theodore Baskin. Nagano's flexible tempi allow the performers full expression of their solo entries. His understanding of the philosophical tone of the original Chinese poems has, I am sure, contributed to the musical drama. Listen to his way with the extremes of existential anguish in the three songs “Of Beauty”, “The Drunkard in Spring”, and “The Farewell” (sung by tenor, baritone, tenor). Nagano’s understanding of Mahler’s music is like fitting hands into a pair of perfect gloves.
Surprisingly, what is marvelous throughout this recording is not the grandeur or boldness of the sound, but Nagano’s keen perception of softness. Through quietude and suggestion Mahler makes his greatest impact. For example, the poetic depiction of an autumn landscape in transition toward winter becomes a metaphor for the passing of life. The music becomes a stimulus to trigger memories of the beauty of the earth and of nature, enhancing ones memories of the coniferous and deciduous forests and the serene sounds of meandering river creeks. “The Farewell” (sung by baritone), lasting 29:07, impresses just as vividly as all that has preceded it. This encloses a great funeral march, and when the soloist engages in the words of the final verse, the orchestra intensifies the emotional scale of the text: “everywhere the lovely earth blossoms forth in spring and grows green anew … for ever.” Death is a fact, and this is what Das Lied is about. For this reason, the work has been called "one of Mahler’s surest claims to immortality as a composer.”
Second, the success of this recording owes much to the soloists – tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and baritone Christian Gerhaher. Gerhaher is well suited to the exotic East and his versatile voice is apt to the heart-felt arabesques of the melodic line. But the especial miracle of this performance comes with Vogt's intelligent and relaxed account of the daunting tenor songs. This score has left many a tenor red in the face and struggling to be heard over the welter of orchestral sound. Vogt projects well with a fine and even somewhat baritonal quality. He scales the heights of the text with ease and never seems to strain. His range of expression adroitly conveys the depiction of young people on green and white porcelain and the extrovert vehemence of the springtime drunkard. Yet he also accommodates witty irony amid lightly inflected rhythms. If his voice is well stewarded and not overtaxed Vogt could be one of the great heldentenors of his generation. The attractions of these two singers complement Nagano’s incisive way with the score.
Nagano is one of the few conductors to record this work in one of its rarer versions with a baritone as partner to the tenor in place of the more usual contralto - often sung by a mezzo. He follows in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein’s infamous 1966 legendary recording with James King and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (reviewed here) and Bernard Haitink’s 1985 Mahlerfest recording with Ben Heppner and Thomas Hampson. More recently we have had Kenneth Slowik’s unique 2003 interpretation of the Schönberg-Riehm chamber transcription with John Elwes and Russel Braun and Michael Tilson Thomas’s revered 2007 recording with Stuart Skelton and Thomas Hampson (reviewed here). One minor downside is that listeners will have to get the text of these poems elsewhere although note-writer Dujka Smoje provides an excellent analysis of each poem in her notes.
This 2009 recording will surely be remembered for long, as one of the quintessential recordings that brought Mahler’s bleeding Weltschmerz to full expressive power.
One final thought and recommendation. Do try listening to your favorite recording of this work in a nearby forest. It really helps to distil the fundamental earthly elements Mahler hoped to convey. You’ll be surprised how satisfying this can be.