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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Jonathan Nott
rec. Golden Hall of the Musikverein, Vienna, 16-22 June 2016
SONY CLASSICAL 88985389832 [61:06]

This release has caused a lot of controversy since it first appeared, and I’m still a little conflicted about it myself. The reasons for the debate are obvious. Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde for a tenor and “low voice,” in practice either a mezzo-soprano or a baritone. However, in his recording and concert of 2016, superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann sang all the songs himself, and you can now judge the results for yourself.

In the booklet notes Kaufmann explains that this was the end result of a journey he went through with the work, which is well and good, but he goes too far in suggesting, as he does, that the piece doesn’t really need two singers for it to work. That’s wrong-headed and even a touch hubristic because it flies so directly in the face of the composer’s wishes.

All we can do, however, is evaluate what he has given us, and in many ways it’s very satisfying, throwing up new aspects of Kaufmann that you might not expect. In the opening Trinklied, for example, the voice has a controlled rawness that you don’t normally associate with him. However, there is beauty, too, in the section about the sky gleaming blue.  Furthermore, he is remarkably audible in the section about the ape howling among the tombstones.  Whether that’s because of his stamina, Nott’s control of the orchestra, a clever recording balance or a combination of all three doesn’t really matter; the effect is wonderful.

Conversely, Von de Jugend is light and carefree, the voice tripping gently over the notes in a manner that is appropriately superficial, while the protagonist of Der Trunkene im Frühling is clearly a happy drunk, full of good humour, even if his conversation with the bird is a little heavy.

So far so predictable, but what of the low voice songs? Well, the first two are very affecting. He runs through a whole range of emotions in Der Einsame in Herbst sounding wounded and damaged at the beginning, and he scales his voice back so that the rampant heroism of the Trinklied vanishes and it sounds instead like an entirely different voice, almost limpid in its vulnerability.  However, he finds power and a more heroic tinge to the final phrase around “Sonne der Liebe,” and he also brings out the humour and lightheartedness of Von der Schönheit better than more serious-minded mezzos or baritones.  Some others might think this superficial, but Kaufmann reminds you that the flirtatiousness is already there in both the poetry and the music, and so it sounds very natural.

The greatest test, however, is where he is found most wanting. A lot about Der Abschied is good.  The voice is very beautiful at the key moment where the moon arises like a silver boat, an arcing sense of yearning creeping into the sound.  He is also uncommonly communicative at the passage where, in an almost hushed voice, he explains that he is awaiting his friend  (“Ich stehe hier”) while the winds float around him and the violins first begin to sing their great Farewell theme.  He is then hushed and meditative when his friend arrives, the voice arching up as it prepares for the great coda.

But is it sufficiently characterised?  It’s here that I had my greatest doubts.  Kaufmann is one of today’s greatest vocal actors, but I couldn't escape the feeling that he was never much more than a tourist in this song, taking territory that shouldn't really be his.  For all that I've said above, there is less vocal variety and colour on display than you’ll find among his lower-voiced rivals and, astonishingly for an artist like him, he seems to forsake his acting ability. When he sings the words of the departing friend, for example (“Wohin ich geh?”) he shades down his voice, but the effect sounds strangely empty rather than personal; inert when it should be most full of emotion.  He redeems that a little when he sings the composer’s own words in the coda, the climax of the whole work, but the music’s overall destination feels a little anticlimactic, not helped by the fact that the final repetitions of “Ewig” sound too low for his voice.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, on the other hand, has been most closely associated with this work ever since the days of Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier, and they make the most consistently satisfying contribution to the recording’s success. The horns at the open glow rather than bray, and the violins dare to be subtle in their line that caresses the often neglected corners of the Trinklied.  There is a perpetual twinkle to Von der Jugend, and the clarinets skirl brilliantly at the beginning of Der Trunkene im Frühling.  Every detail of Der Abschied comes out brilliantly, be it the huge sense of space around the opening, the flicker of the winds like birdsong, or the beautiful, mystical coda, complete with celesta and mandolin. Jonathan Nott was, apparently, a late stand-in for an indisposed Daniele Gatti, but you’d never guess it, so complete is his mastery of the score, and his vast Mahlerian experience comes to the front in a way that his co-artist’s does not.

I’ve said before that I far prefer a female voice in these songs, and not even Jonas Kaufmann can dissuade me from that view. If, ultimately, his project falls short then I can, at least, admire its ambition. However, I doubt we’ll still be talking about it in a couple of years’ time.

Simon Thompson



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