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Gustav Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde (Part 1)

Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler’s attempt to trick fate. Finding some disconcerting precedent in composers’ fates after writing a ninth symphony (it was Beethoven’s last, Schubert did not outlive his by much, Bruckner died three-quarters through his Ninth, Dvořák didn’t live to start a Tenth), he simply skipped the numbering process in 1907/08. After initially referring to Das Lied as his “IX. Symphony” he eventually called this all-vocal symphony that followed his all-choral Eighth “The Song of the Earth”—and that only after he had completed the symphony now known as the Ninth. The work stands for the concluding synthesis of songs and symphonic form in Mahler’s œvre and doubtlessly constitutes some of the most innovative orchestral-vocal treatments ever composed. Das Lied is set to five fairly short and one epic songs in turn set to seven of Hans Bethge’s chinoisery poems based on—already liberally treated—French translations of 8th century Chinese poetry and then further adapted by Mahler.

Mahler was given the book with these Chinese poems in 1907, shortly after the death of his child. Alma Mahler suggests that the poems attracted Mahler—with intent to compose—because of their disillusioned tone and gloomy subject matter closely reflecting his depressed state of mind that summer. The oriental inspiration is authentic (Mahler even listened to Chinese music on phonograph cylinders), even if the Chinese-content isn’t much more authentically Chinese than an egg roll at Panda Express.

If Das Lied and the following two symphonies were not exactly—or not at all—farewells to a life he had absolutely no intention (or premonition) of leaving, they are certainly imprinted with grief. Das Lied with grief over losing his child, the Tenth over losing Alma. Stuart Feder calls Das Lied “an artifact of mourning and melancholia… mourning transformed into high art.” Mahler composed them over the course of eight weeks in the summer of 1908 in Toblach, confined to misery not just of the upheaval of the family tragedy in 1907 but also because his lifestyle, his vigorous routine of exercise—walking, hiking, and swimming—had been forbidden to him by the doctor who discovered his heart condition. “For my inner mobility [to work productively], I need outer mobility” he wrote to Bruno Walter in a touchingly personal letter. “Imagine if Beethoven had had to have one of his legs amputated. Knowing how he lived, can you imagine how he could have been capable of as much as sketching a single movement for a quartet?”

The structure of Das Lied is two-partite in that the first half is made up of five shorter movements and the other of the last (like the Third). Or three-partite in that the large(r) opening movement and Abschied—for high and low voice, respectively—bracket four movements, two for each voice type... akin to his Seventh.

The result, with its fragmented melodic bits and effects of estrangement, can be rather harder to get into than most his symphonies. The cruelly difficult tenor part, in particular, is thankless—for the singer, foremost, but also for the casual listener. Together with the Ninth and (whatever there is of it) the Tenth, it makes a final trilogy that one can divide Mahler’s symphonies semi-neatly—albeit simplistically—into. Symphony No. 1 as the prologue, the triplet of Symphonies Nos. 2–4 as the choral/vocal symphonies (and 1–4 altogether as the Wunderhorn symphonies), the middle triplet of Symphonies Nos. 5–7 as the orchestral symphonies, and Symphony No. 8 as the aberration; something he had to write to get back on with his work and life.

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Bernstein / King & Dieskau / WPh

Das Lied is set for tenor and contralto—although Mahler suggested that the alto part could alternatively be taken by a baritone, which makes sense, because the texts suggest two men in conversation. (Perhaps under the influence of reading Goethe’s “Conversations with Eckermann”?) Bruno Walter thought otherwise and vowed never to use two male voices because it “doesn’t suite the work”. Not many recordings take that option for two male singers—but some of the best of the lot do. Prior to his Sony and DG Lied, Bernstein recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca in 1966 and his soloists, James King and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, support him in his ecstasy-heavy reading. Maniacal to a fault, Bernstein runs the danger of overtaking his soloists with the orchestra—but the palpable excitement is too great to be denied or decried. King is good enough and rarely gets caught trying too hard. Fischer-Dieskau is magnificent and bettered only on the Paul Kletzki recording (EMI Gemini) by… his younger self. And by Christian Gerhaher (with Nagano).

available at Amazon Mahler, Das Lied, Kletzki / Dickie & Dieskau / Philharmonia

UK | DE | FR
The sound from this (Kletzky’s) 1959 Abbey Road recording is a joy (better than the fine 1957 Fourth with which it is now coupled) and while Dieskau’s excellence is expected, Murray Dickie’s clear and tangible tenor—excellent diction, good pronunciation, wonderful in character in Von der Jugend—is a happy surprise. An alluring (but unauthorized and hence illegal) 1964 Wunderlich–Dieskau combination exists with Joseph Keilberth and his Bamberg band—but I have yet to get a copy of Classica D’oro 4008 to see if it is all—or any—that the names promise it to be.

Continued here: Gustav Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde (Part 2)

Overview of the whole Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.

The font used in the title is "ITC Rennie Mackintosh Light"

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