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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied Von Der Erde (1909)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo); Donald Litaker (tenor)
Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra/Martin Sieghart
rec. 18-20 December 2006, Concert Hall, Music Sacrum, Arnhem, Netherlands.
Hybrid Layer Disc for CD, SACD Stereo and Surround Sound
EXTON HGO0702 [59:09] 


There are few musical works written in the 20th century where the weight of a great performance tradition now bears down on performers of today as much as it does with Mahler’s “Das Lied Von Der Erde”. When it comes to recordings you can multiply that weight a hundredfold. It is a very special work and not just in the Mahler canon. It has brought to the microphone the finest interpreters of Mahler’s music who have ever lived and they have in their turn been inspired to give of their very best. After conductors like Walter, Klemperer, Horenstein, Bernstein, Kubelik, Haitink and singers like Baker, Ferrier, Ludwig, Fassbaender, Wunderlich, Fischer-Dieskau, King and Patzak - and these are just a selection - have all recorded, in superb sound, interpretations “for the ages” what chance do present-day interpreters have in the competition? The plain answer is not very much. It would take something truly exceptional to rival, never mind surpass, what has gone before. However, keep trying present day interpreters certainly must because a tradition is worthless unless it carries on, and musical life is not just in the recording studio. Those great recordings of the past were once themselves brand new and had to gain from what had preceded them. That being the case it is always possible that one day there will come along a new recording that is worthy to stand with the great of the past, be significantly different in approaches, but comparable and worthy of the collector. For that day Mahlerians like me always live in hope that each new recording will be the one. 

This work depends as much on the strengths of the two singers as it does on the conductor and orchestra and any consideration must place them on an equal footing. In this recording the two singers are both fine musicians and word painters but I really would have liked to hear more character, more of a sense of acting out the inner drama of what is being described by the poets than I do here. That comes with experience as well as artistry and I don’t feel the weight of experience being brought to bear with these two soloists that could buoy them up to seem to lead the orchestra rather than be lead by it. This is the feeling I had most of all with Christianne Stotijn in the crucial “Abschied” final movement. Listen to the really intimate moments where Mahler pares down his orchestra to the barest minimum. These are the real testing passages where Mahler becomes thief of time and we are alone with the singer. Though one cannot fault her poise and precision, Stotijn is still only accompanying the players rather than being the sun around which their fleeting meteor fragments of notes float in uncertain orbit. The weight of experience would have helped her to sing out more and therefore given her the opportunity to stamp a character on even these fleeting passages. Likewise in the galloping horses section of “Von Der Schoenheit” where she is hanging on to the orchestra and Martin Sieghart, her words tending to get trampled by those horses. For comparison try Christa Ludwig or Janet Baker for character, for dominance however subtle, and for the distinctive voice: the character that experience brings. Stotijn is better in the second movement, “Der Einsame in Herbst”, but here a sense of cool, creative detachment works in the song’s favour. Stotijn’s voice is also a lighter mezzo rather than a chesty contralto which I prefer, though I admit that may be just a personal preference. Though Ferrier and Fassbaender certainly bring a true desolation to this movement with their distinctive timbres. 

The two soloists are at least well suited. Donald Litaker is no heldentenor in the King or Wunderlich style, but neither does he take the alternative lieder singer’s approach that you hear more from Patzak or Schreier, which I might have expected and which is just as valid. He has a fine sense of the words in the opening “Das Trinklied” but there needs to be more expressionism in the “ape on the graves” passage than here, even though his conductor’s overall conception seems to shy away from the toxic shock of that amazing image. Listen to James King with Bernstein for the real nightmare of the new pushing the 19th century envelope until it rips open into the 20th. In “Von Der Jugend” you can hear Litaker’s tendency to sing slightly behind the beat at times as, I imagine, an expressive device which is only partially successful and which might become troubling. He is a fine singer, though, but in this work he is, like his female co-singer, lacking in some character and that crucial experience to lead the performances of his songs. True, there here is a nice lilt from him in “Der Trunkene im Fruhling” but you need a Patzak for the real rapture of Spring. 

The recording balance puts both of the singers a little further back in the sound picture than is usual in this work on record. It is a concert hall balance and I am always pleased to hear that. The problem is that when it is balanced like this the soloists really need to be more distinctive in their approaches and my comments above must therefore be borne in mind. The balance does not help them at all. The orchestra produces a soft-grained sound led by the horns especially. They do not penetrate the textures like some sections can. Listen to the first song for a prime example. No bad thing in itself, of course. A general soft tone of the orchestra, as here, does add to the undoubted chinoiserie that this work must bring out and I enjoyed hearing that. The string section seems rather small and so not as expressive as the big metropolitan bands of Vienna or Amsterdam can be. However, I have the impression that this is all what Martin Sieghart wants us to hear. He does seem to be inquiring into this work in a different way than is usual by his lighter textures, his slightly faster overall tempi and his occidental gloss and I do applaud him for that. The tradition must be carried on. He is an interesting conductor and should soon be recording yet another performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony which he has been championing for some time. 

Certainly a distinctive new recording of this great work. Some of the distinction might not mean it is placed in the great pantheon of past recordings, but those who want surround sound in a recording of it might be tempted by that. For myself I would still swear allegiance to Kubelik with Baker and Kmentt on Originals (95491) and then there are all “the usual suspects“ mentioned above. 

One day we may yet be surprised by a truly great new version but this honourable newcomer is not it. 

Tony Duggan 




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