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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied Von Der Erde (1909)
A Chinese language version replacing the original German texts inspired by Tang Dynasty poetry with Daniel Ng’s reconstruction of the original Chinese poems.
Ning Liang (mezzo); Warren Mok (tenor)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. July-August 2005, Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore. SACD Surround, SACD Stereo, CD Stereo.
BIS-SACD-1547 [59:09] 
Experience Classicsonline


We need to remember that when Mahler composed "Das Lied Von Der Erde" he did not simply take straightforward translations of poems from Chinese into German. Inspired he certainly was, but the texts that he had read and which he was moved to set to music were in fact free creative paraphrases in German, glosses if you like, by Hans Bethge. They owed at least as much, probably more, to Bethge's own input as they did to their original Chinese authors. Therefore any attempt, however laudable, to make a straight translation into Mandarin of Bethge's original German texts would not be to return the poems to their original Chinese form. There is even one poem in the work where Chinese scholars have difficulty in tracing an original. Let me say that I would have no problem with a straight translation of what Mahler actually set if it were the case here. Indeed, as you will see below, I think this would have been a more worthwhile and useful aim. There is, after all, an honourable tradition of making works more accessible to local audiences through translations. Think of Andrew Porter's translation into English of Wagner's Ring for the production and recordings by Reginald Goodall, for example. There are losses along the way. Music written for one language might not quite suit another. However, the gains in helping an audience understand what is going on are considerable. So allowing Chinese-speaking audiences to follow Bethge's words in a performance of Mahler's masterpiece would certainly have merit. However, this is not at all what has happened in this recording. Here we have something much more radical, much more problematic and controversial, leading me to question just who this is aimed at and why it is being aimed at all. 

The sung texts here are the responsibility of Daniel Ng. What he has done is to take original Tang Dynasty poems, only some of which are behind those of Bethge and Mahler and further adapt those to the music. Material that is often profoundly different from those in Bethge's work as well. So here "Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde" becomes (if translated into English) "Song of Sorrow" rather than "Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" with references to specific characters. Bethge's repeated phrase set by Mahler "Dark is life, is death" here becomes "woe is me, woe is me" which is far less dark and profound and surely not what Mahler intended at all. Later the version of "Der Abschied" that we have here is, we are told in the notes, assembled by Ng from five different sources as opposed to just the two used by Bethge with the added end lines stitched on by Mahler himself. These two examples must suffice to illustrate that what we have here is very far indeed from what Mahler intended and, I think, in the end does no favours at all to Chinese listeners and certainly not to Mahler. But there is a further impediment to consider, maybe a clincher. As the liner-notes explain, German is polysyllabic whereas Chinese is not. So, to quote the infamous remark by the Emperor to Mozart, there are too many notes to spread around and what we get is a kind of vocal running which destroys Mahler's careful composition completely. Listen to the end of "Der Abschied" if you want a more convincing case against this project. For such a carefully composed work as this maybe German is the only way to hear it. 

Lan Shui conducts the Singapore Symphony very well. He has Mahlerian feel and so does his orchestra. The first song is delivered beautifully but it must be said that their contribution from then on becomes a bit patchy. They are better in the all-out parts than in the reflective sections, but the problem is that this work is mostly reflective. Woodwinds don't have the innate tradition of European or American players, for example. They often stick out from the texture too much. You would also have thought that an orchestra from this part of the world would have been able to manage a better tam-tam than this. Perhaps the rather thin sound of that emblematic Chinese instrument over ones used in Europe that can be heard on this recording could serve to remind us that what we are dealing with in Mahler's work is chinoiserie rather than authentic Chinese music and so rule this project out of court altogether. The two soloists are enthusiastic but the fact that their contributions are best forgotten might have more to do with the complications of the project rather than any shortcomings of their own. Both suffer from pitching difficulties. Warren Mok seems to have to spend so much time wrapping himself around all those notes to try to be a Heldentenor and Ning Liang has too much vibrato for my taste in addition to the problems faced by her colleague. 

An oddity, then. For Chinese speakers a straight translation from Bethge's German would have been of more use and more merit, though even then I do wonder. But this is one step too far and it's a step that is over a precipice. 

Tony Duggan 

 


 


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