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Song of the Earth

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Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, K. F. Vogt, C. Gerhaher, OS de Montréal, K. Nagano

(released on August 18, 2009)
Sony Classical 88697508212 | 61'28"

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Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, S. Skelton, T. Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, M. Tilson Thomas

(released on September 9, 2008)
SFSO 821936-0019-2 | 63'20"

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 2, M. Persson, C. Stotijn, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, B. Haitink

(released on November 17, 2009)
CSO-Resound CSOR 901 914 | 82'02"
The remarkable January programming of the National Symphony Orchestra continues this week with concerts under the direction of Principal Conductor Iván Fischer (January 21 to 23). Mozart's 38th symphony ("Prague") will stand by itself on a rather insubstantial first half, but the second half will be given to a masterpiece, Mahler's symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. In response to his grief over the loss of his daughter and the anxiety about his own failing health, Mahler was moved and fascinated by the translations of translations of Chinese poems in Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte (that site does not include translations of Mahler's German texts). He set these texts, celebrations of wine and drunkenness, expressions of sadness and loss, with an elemental folk-music melodic and harmonic palette, springing from pentatonic cells reminiscent of Chinese (or other folk) music.

For historical background on Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler began out of anxiety about the finality of composing a ninth symphony, we direct you to the fine essay by Henry-Louis de la Grange. In preparation, I have been listening to two recent recordings, which are probably not the best option because they both cast the dialogue for two voices with a tenor and baritone, while Fischer will have a mezzo-soprano and tenor -- Mahler seems not to indicate a preference for mezzo-soprano or baritone. (For the definitive word on recordings of the cycle, as with all things Mahler, we direct you to Jens's survey of recordings of Das Lied: Part 1 and Part 2.) Jens, of course, is right on the money to single out Kent Nagano's recording of the piece as "stupendous" (a word not used lightly, to be sure), in spite of a rather artless (appropriately enough) performance by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt. Nagano's tempi have a pleasing fluidity, and the calibration of balances is poised and widely varied.

The sound captured in the San Francisco Symphony's recordings on its private label is of exceptionally high quality, especially for a live recording (from September 2007), although as a hybrid SACD on the costly side (but with very attractive packaging and booklet, with an essay by Michael Steinberg). Tilson Thomas has a more overtly emotional take on Mahler, by comparison to the restraint of Nagano, but his soloists are not as good. Thomas Hampson's voice pleases my ear more than some other critics, and his affected way the sound can be produced does not bother me too much, but tenor Stuart Skelton is a weak link. Fischer will have Stig Andersen, who was featured in the Royal Danish Opera's Ring cycle, but I have yet to hear him. The voice of Fischer's mezzo, Christianne Stotijn, has been in my ears thanks to the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of Mahler's second symphony, on the CSO's private label, conducted by Bernard Haitink, who has done a lot to further the young Dutch singer's career. (Hopefully Stotijn was having an off night when she sang Das Lied, again with Haitink, at a London Symphony Orchestra concert reviewed by Mark Berry.) Her Urlicht, while not exactly that of a time-altering earth mother, is warm and maternal.

The NSO will play this program beginning this evening (January 21 to 23). In response to the desperate need for aid to help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, the NSO has pledged the proceeds from the Friday performance of this program (January 22, 8 pm) to the Haiti Relief and Development Fund of the American Red Cross. A special Haitian-themed performance will be given on the Millennium Stage at 6 pm that evening, and to open the program, on Friday night only, Fischer will conduct the movement from Bach’s third orchestral suite known as the Air on the G String.

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