MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde • Marc Albrecht, cond; Alice Coote (mez); Burkhard Fritz (ten); Netherlands PO • PENTATONE 5186502 (SACD: 63:03 Text and Translation)
Well, well! After three decades, we finally have another great recording of Das Lied. The last one I heard that really impressed me enough to keep was the early 1980s DG recording with Brigitte Fassbaender, Francisco Araiza, and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini—anRead more unusual combination, to be sure, and not one you’d immediately associate with Mahler’s great orchestral song cycle. In such a difficult work as this, four factors come into play: the quality of the conductor’s interpretation, the atmosphere created by the orchestra, the vocal quality of the soloists and then—last but certainly not least—the interpretive quality of the soloists. Just to give you an idea of how difficult this combination is to bring off, listen to Rudolf Kempe’s broadcast performance of the 1970s. Even with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a group finely attuned to his subtle yet enlivening style, and two world-class soloists (Janet Baker and Ludovic Spiess), the performance has glitches that, in the end, make it recommendable only for die-hard Kempe fans. Among other failures (in my personal view) was Leonard Bernstein’s Decca recording with King and Fischer-Dieskau, in which both conductor and soloists over-italicized phrases, often pushing them out of shape; Otto Klemperer’s EMI recording with Ludwig and Wunderlich, in which the opposite was true (nothing much really happened); and Fritz Reiner’s recording, which just doesn’t convince me of its rightness of phrasing.
This leaves us with the Bruno Walter Collection, in my view and despite the occasionally uneven singing of various soloists through the years, the most consistently satisfying group of Das Lieds under the baton of one conductor. My own personal favorite is the version with Richard Lewis and Maureen Forrester, but then, during that particular era, we also had the superb reading of the vastly underrated Paul Kletzki with Murray Dickie and Fischer-Dieskau (EMI). Going back even further in time, the one really astonishing mono recording was the 1939 Concertgebouw performance with Kerstin Thorborg, Carl Martin Öhmann, and the equally underrated Carl Schuricht. Thus, you can see, my favorite Das Lieds span a vast range of years and conducting styles, but put to the test I will almost always opt for either the Schuricht or one of the Walter recordings.
To say, then, that this recording meets the challenge is putting it mildly. Mark Albrecht’s conducting is both exciting when called for and sensitive in turn. He never lets the music slacken to the point where it appears to be falling apart, yet he achieves a tenderness and transparency in certain sections that beggar the imagination. Of course, the splendid sonics have a lot to do with this, and readers of my reviews know that by and large I am a big fan of PentaTone’s SACD sound just as I am of BIS’s. Those are the two labels that, to me, consistently bring out clarity as well as giving one a 3D quality even when the discs are played on a conventional CD machine, as mine is. I can only imagine how much more someone with an SACD hookup will get out of this. But, of course, sonics are merely the surface; without an exceptional performance underneath, all the SACD or surround sound in the world would mean nothing.
Burkhard Fritz doesn’t have the most beautiful voice in the world, but he has the requisite high range to survive the cruel tessitura of “Das Trinklied,” which just may be the most difficult dramatic tenor music in history. Just think of the famous Heldentenors who have sounded either strained or just plain uncomfortable in this music: Set Svanholm (with Walter and the New York Philharmonic), Jon Vickers (with Colin Davis), even King with Bernstein. More often than not, it is the light lyric tenors who excel in it (Kullmann and Lewis with Walter, Dickie with Kletzki, Wunderlich with Klemperer, Araiza with Giulini). Of tenors who were known for doing some Wagner roles, only Öhmann does it superbly (and that is a live performance, too). But now we have Fritz, a tenor who has sung Lohengrin and Parsifal in addition to Florestan and Max in Freischütz. Alice Coote, who has apparently sung a good amount of Mahler in addition to Berlioz, Handel, and Bach, is as fine as my favorite interpreters of this music, which include Thorborg, Forrester, Baker, and Fassbaender. (Of course I also like Kathleen Ferrier’s studio interpretation, but hers is a highly individual reading of the words and music, not exactly what Mahler wrote or wanted.) Without exaggerating, this performance of “Das Abschied” will put you in a very different space. From the very first notes of the orchestra, you feel yourself transported to a world entirely different from the rest of the cycle, which is not only appropriate but needed, and when Coote enters it is almost a voice from beyond the ether—a voice of not only ethereal beauty, but also of a world beyond pain and suffering, the voice of a being who has accepted the end of life and is ready to take the “drink of farewell.” You truly feel the pain of the traveler who “Fortune has not favored” in this world as well as the feeling of release he will attain by walking “into the mountains,” seeking “peace for my lonely heart.” Heartbreak blends with the release of regret and suffering here. (Ferrier in 1952, on the verge of death herself and knowing it, could not let go—her farewell is unwilling and uncomfortable, rightly so, wanting to hold onto life as long as she could.) There are passages in this long final movement where Albrecht creates moments of not only profound beauty but a quiet sound that can only be described as interminable depths—again, the sonics help considerably. But there is just something about this performance that grabs you and will not let go.
Near the end of “Der Abschied,” Albrecht does not bring up the volume of the orchestra quite as much as other conductors. This is artistic choice, but it makes dramatic sense as well. Why suddenly explode orchestrally as the protagonist is fading, not riding, into the sunset? This is a performance for the ages. Make room for it next to whatever other Das Lieds you already own.