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Das Lied Von Der Erde

Peter Schreier (Tenor), Birgit Finnila (Alto)
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Kurt Sanderling
Berlin Classics 0094022BC [62.01]
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A better start to this work could not be imagined. The opening of the first song, Der Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, is commanding with weight of tone that pitches us into the hurly-burly. Peter Schreier handles both the vigorous and the lyrical passages with equal flair. He may not have a Heldentenor's power but he makes up for this in dramatic point and there is never a moment when he hasn't something interesting to tell us. For example, each repetition of the line "Dunkel ist das leben, ist der Tod" finds a different tone from him each time, the second an especially dying fall: a world of regret conveyed in one phrase. In the passage beginning "Das firmament blaut ewig" I like the special treatment Sanderling gives to the trumpets, representative of his care for instrumental detail and an example of the support he gives Schreier. But the greatest test is the vision of the ape on the graves in the moonlight. This is wonderfully dramatised without tumbling into melodrama. Notice too how Schreier spits out the words "wild-gespenstische Gestalt" for immediacy you can almost touch.

The contrast between the extremes of expression of the first song and the static, Autumnal feel of the second, "Der Einsame im Herbst", is superbly achieved by Sanderling with an opening on strings and oboe that manages to be glacial yet invested with deep meaning. The colours of autumn continue to be painted as the music progresses. Birgit Finnila's entrance is ripe and confident and whilst you can't say she's Schreier's equal she acquits herself well. Sanderling keeps up the tempo and manages to make this quite a passionate performance without seeming to mould very much. There is pent-up passion held back here too. Finnila has a lighter voice than many we are used to but I found her most refreshing. Her grasp of the words is impressive too and she responds perfectly to the restless accompaniment of the one passage of real warmth and feeling in the song at "Sonne der liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen".

But Schreier is the jewel of this recording. His delivery of every word and phrase in the third song, "Von Der Jugend", is a joy as too is Sanderling's accompaniment. The lightening of tone after the previous two movements is remarkable, but even then conductor and soloist notice the penultimate stanza does have more of a reflective feel. Schreier may not be to everybody's taste but I love the slightly ironic stance he takes too. There is cynicism behind his voice giving even the lyrical sections an edge. He seems to want to convey the idea that, though he is the participant in what he describes, he nevertheless retains his independence of mind and spirit. Like an actor's view of a great part he is playing on the stage. In the fifth song, "Der Trunkene im Fruhling", notice the wonder invested into "mir ist als wie im Traum" and in "Der lenz ist da" the slight slowing down to wonderful effect. You also know he is listening to the birds in this song and what a tuneful piccolo the orchestra supplies. At "Ich fulle mir den Becher neu" there is a final change of timbre to tell you the singer is hitting the bottle again and he even sounds drunk in the last stanza with the final words barked out. 

Finnila copes better than many with Mahler's impossible demands during the episode in the fourth song describing young men on horseback. Then she manages an epilogue with all the time and space it needs where, as so often, Sanderling is like a rock for her. However, the big test for her is the last song, "Der Abschied", the centrepiece of the whole work. Finnila darkens her tone for the opening and Sanderling supports by making sure everything can be heard in the orchestra. Remember the orchestration for this work is one of the many remarkable aspects of it and the recorded sound presents a rich canvas with air around the instruments and a nice bloom. There is also in Sanderling's gently pressing tempo a forward motion and great yearning. The ripe playing in the passage about the moon floating like a silver ship on the sea of the heavens is made to float up and down with Finnila's singing illustrating the words, then the orchestral interlude is given great lyrical portent by Sanderling as well as a modernist feel. Then note the low tam-tam at Finnila's description of the stranger dismounting. The line "Du mein freund, mir war auf dieser Welt das Gluck nicht hold!" is one of the central statements of this work and Finnila's delivery is remarkable for the balance of her voice against the orchestra where all details can be heard clearly, woodwinds especially. Finnila and Sanderling see the end of the work as a scene of joy and repose, regret for the loss of earthly senses. Not despair, which some commentaries on this work might imply.

The whole approach to the final song accords with so much of what Sanderling seems to be aiming for in the whole work. Let the music speak, the soloists deliver expressive points and concentrate on detail, tone and singing line. Maybe the heart is not wrung, as it is in some versions, but this is as valid a view as any that you will hear. I also admire the recording balance that places the singers a little further back than is sometimes the case so the orchestra becomes another soloist.

This is one of the finest recordings of this inexhaustible work. No Mahlerite should be without it.

Tony Duggan

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