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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Toby Spence (tenor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, 29 February 2011, Royal Festival Hall, London. DDD
German text and English translation included

I came to this recording just a few days after listening to a new transfer of Bruno Walter’s famous 1960 recording of Das Lied von der Erde (review). When I started to play this new LPO version I feared that by comparison with Walter’s wisdom and authority the newcomer might seem unsatisfactory. However, this was a case of perseverance paying off.
I may as well confront immediately what seems to me to be a problem with this performance, namely the contribution of Toby Spence. He is a fine singer who has, rightly, attracted a great deal of admiration but I’m not sure we hear him at his best in this role, or, at least, not on this occasion. The performance took place about ten months before he was diagnosed with an illness that could have threatened his career - and possibly his life. Happily, thanks to expert medical attention, he has not only made a complete recovery but is also restored to full vocal health, as I discovered when I heard him sing Gerontius just a few weeks ago (review). In that performance of The Dream of Gerontius I recall he offered a good deal of nuanced singing but that is not so readily apparent here. To be fair, Mahler doesn’t deal his tenor the best of hands: not only does the mezzo have the deepest songs but, generally speaking, she also has a kinder vocal line. The tenor, however, has to cope with a tessitura that is often punishing, not least in the opening song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’. However, even allowing for the taxing tessitura I don’t think that Spence delivers the song with anything like the range of expression and colour that I’ve heard other tenors bringing to the role. In particular, the delivery of the line ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ lacks poetry, especially the first time it occurs; nor is there the expressiveness I’d like to hear at ‘Das Firmament blaut ewig’. On the other hand, there’s another, more virile side to this song and Spence has the necessary vocal heft for these passages. I’m not sure that Spence is helped by the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin who seems to me to be rather unyielding in this movement, which is despatched quite vigorously.
In his second song, ‘Von der Jugend’, Spence is lighter of voice, as the music requires, but again I find his voice rather unvaried. For comparison I listened to the great Fritz Wunderlich in Klemperer’s classic account (review) and I hear much more shading and variety of vocal colour from Wunderlich than I do from Spence; this despite the fact that Klemperer’s pacing is a bit too deliberate for my taste. Nézet-Séguin’s lighter touch on the tiller is preferable. Spence is at his best, I think, in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’. I like very much the expression he brings to the section beginning at ‘Der Vogel zwitschert’ and the roistering passages in this song are well done also. I ended up feeling somewhat frustrated, believing that we don’t hear the best of Toby Spence in this performance. He’s splendidly suited to those passages that require a manly ring but elsewhere one feels that he is capable of greater subtlety than one hears on this occasion.
Sarah Connolly is one of the leading mezzos of her generation and she’s recorded quite a bit of Mahler but Das Lied von der Erde is new to her discography, I believe. She makes an immediate, positive impression in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’. Nézet-Séguin paves the way for her first entry very well; the delicate introduction is subtly played by the LPO. Miss Connolly caresses her opening phrases and throughout her delivery of this song she sings with lovely tone while Nézet-Séguin accompanies her with perception and refinement. The stanza that begins ‘Mein Herz ist müde’ is sung with fine feeling and I love the pathos that Connolly brings to ‘Ich weine viel im meinen Einsamkeiten’. She’s also very convincing in her second song, ‘Von der Schönheit’, though I did have a feeling that towards the end of the quick episode the performance - from both singer and orchestra - rather runs away with itself for a few moments.
‘Der Abschied’ is moving and very satisfying; the performers seem to reserve their best for this demanding song. Sarah Connolly’s opening lines make a strong impression. Her singing is poised and expressive yet she rations the tone most effectively. As a consequence, when she switches on the full tone at ‘O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt’ one relishes the contrast. I should say at this point that the playing of the LPO, which has been splendid throughout the work thus far, is even finer in this last song and there’s some excellent solo work, most notably from the principal flute. At ‘Es wehet kühl’ singer and conductor seem to make time stand still for a few moments - and that flute is once again superb. The long orchestral interlude (15:59-21:28) is expansive and powerful, Nézet-Séguin drawing some splendid playing from the orchestra. When the soloist enters again Miss Connolly drains her tone marvellously for ‘Er stieg vom Pferd’, singing the section that follows with an imaginative range of colour and expression. She makes ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ a moving outpouring, as it should be and then she and the orchestra fade way to the far horizon: ‘Ewig … ewig …’ Mercifully, there is no applause; though richly deserved and no doubt forthcoming on the night, it would spoil the moment for the domestic listener.
There’s a good deal to admire in this performance, though it doesn’t dislodge the leading choices for Das Lied von der Erde on disc. Apart from a tendency to press too hard in the opening song I felt that Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the score very well and the LPO respond to him with fine and sensitive playing. I have reservations over Toby Spence but others may take a different view and, in any case, the reservations are not sufficiently serious as to deny this recording a recommendation. Admirers of Sarah Connolly will be delighted that her interpretation of this great mezzo role is available on disc and that her performance is so eloquent and beautifully sung. Now will someone please preserve on disc her Angel in Gerontius?
The recorded sound is very good and the booklet, which contains useful notes by Lindsay Kemp, is well produced and - praise be - printed in a decent-sized font.
John Quinn