Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (new version: Hansjörg Albrecht) (1908) [62:15]
Sibylla Rubens (soprano); Renée Morloc (alto); Markus Schäfer (tenor); Markus Eiche (baritone)
Münchener Bach-Orchester/Hansjörg Albrecht
rec. 14-15, 17-19 January 2011, Himmelfahrtskirche München-Sending

Gustav Mahler’s late song-cycle, Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"), was originally a large-scale work for two vocal soloists and orchestra. It sets ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge. This collection of poems from Die Chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”) (1907) is full of beauty and transcendence reflecting Mahler’s obsessions with mortality, youth, and beauty.
Mahler’s version of the work was scored for a large orchestra - though modest by Mahlerian standards - and most frequently performed with soprano and tenor soloists. Mahler also indicated that a baritone could be used instead of the alto - a less successful arrangement. Having a large orchestra compete with vocal soloists resulted in Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangement for chamber ensemble. Many passages in Schoenberg’s chamber version sound somewhat clinical and thin resulting more in a counter-statement to Mahler’s version rather than a reduction. It also removes some of the most distinctive aspects of Mahler’s version - the celesta in Der Abschied for example.
The present disc is the first recording of a new arrangement by Hansjörg Albrecht and marks the centenary of the work’s premiere. It falls between the original and the reduced Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement. The Riehn in question was Rainer Riehn who finished Schoenberg’s incomplete reduction (for 16 players) in 1938. The reduced orchestra, here somewhat expanded to a complement of twenty-four, fits the music word-painting well since it retains the most prominent aspects of Mahler’s original.
Albrecht’s version presented here stays true in essence to the intentions of Mahler with some adjustments in the soloists: with four voices singing: soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.
One of the problems with a disc that presents a new version of a great work is that the original has been performed and recorded beautifully for generations. How does it compare not only in the execution of the arrangement but in performance with Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein or Otto Klemperer? It may not be fair to compare the arrangements to great performances of the original but such comparisons are inevitable.
This leaner adaptation starts off promisingly with Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”) sung by the tenor. The smaller orchestra does feel true to the creator’s ideas without requiring the tenor to sing at the top of his voice against the full orchestra. The voice sits better against the reduced orchestra; the orchestral lines are smoother and breathe better. The result is a more comfortable, less riveting approach to a song that mixes exhilaration with sadness. What we lose with this comfortable approach is the sense of singing to the hills and the eternal forces.
The second song, Der Einsame im Herbst (“The lonely one in Autumn”) is a contrasting movement that is much softer and full of beauty and lamentation. It works nicely in the reduced form because the orchestration is already chamber-like with long independent lines.
The third song, Von der Jugend (“Of Youth”) is here performed by soprano rather than tenor. The chamber arrangement works fine here as the music is light and amiable. It is somewhat difficult to hear the difference with Mahler’s original other than the size of the string section.
The fourth song, Von der Schönheit (“Of Beauty”) is a generally delicate care-laden song sung effectively by the alto. The loud central section provides contrast. The movement ends with a long wind down from the orchestra.
The fifth song, Der Trunkene im Frühling (“The drunken man in Spring”) is sung by tenor. Mahler shifts tempo frequently keeping an off-balance feel to the music.
Der Abschied (“The Farewell”) isthe final movement and is by far the longest, nearly as long as all the others combined. This is traditionally sung by alto, but here by baritone. It is in three sections, the brooding opening, a central orchestral climax and a slumbering farewell. Though there are some nice touches in Albrecht’s arrangement - such as the delicate and solo woodwind interplay at 8:15 - the performance is not strong enough. The central build is reserved, constantly feeling limited and the climax is prominently out of tune. The enduring sensation is one of a letdown. It just doesn’t compare to the great recordings of the past. One nice effect is the slightly audible harmonium at the mystical conclusion of the movement as the baritone intones “Ewig … ewig …”. That does impart a feeling of passing into the eternal. It’s good that the celesta is retained in this reduction.
Despite the best of intentions, this recording’s vocalists and ensemble are outmatched by the great performances of the past. The somewhat recessed and mundane recorded sound doesn’t help.
The German and English liner notes are detailed, explaining the reasoning for the new arrangement though the full vocal text is in German only. This recording is probably best for the curious who wonder what a mixture between Mahler’s original and Schoenberg/Riehn reduction would sound like. Otherwise, I’d recommend the towering versions by Walter, Bernstein, or Klemperer.
Karim Elmahmoudi 

Probably best for the curious who wonder what a mixture between the original and the reduction would sound like.