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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
(1909) [64:14]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live 25-27 January 2018, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900172 [64:14]

Earlier this year, I enjoyed watching one of these performances streamed live from the Herkukesaal on YouTube. I hoped that a CD would follow and I’m delighted that it now has.

The origin of Das Lied von der Erde can be traced back to 1907, a devastating year for Mahler; the work is almost certainly indicative of his emotional state then. His four-year-old daughter Maria Anna (known as Putzi) died in June and soon after he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Feeling that he could no longer withstand the malicious campaign waged against him at the Vienna Opera, Mahler resigned, conducting his final opera there in October. In June 1908, still experiencing shattering grief, he found some consolation in writing Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony of six Lieder for two solo voices and orchestra. Mahler was clearly captivated by the freely adapted German texts of Hans Bethge’s anthology of Chinese Tang Dynasty poems entitled Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), adapting seven of them into a six-movement song cycle and completing the work in September 1908. In a letter to Bruno Walter, he wrote, “I believe this will be the most personal thing I’ve ever done.” Sadly, he didn’t live to hear the score’s Munich premiere in November 1911.

I interviewed the Brno-born mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená in Berlin in 2014. She is a remarkable singer and seems to have a special affinity for Mahler. In 2012, she released on Deutsche Grammophon an outstanding album entitled ‘Love and Longing’ that includes 5 Rückert-Lieder with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle (review). Darker, weightier sounding mezzo-sopranos have sung Das Lied von der Erde but few have endowed the meaning of the text with as much veracity as Kožená; she makes every word count through telling expression, generating considerable emotion and drawing the listener in by communicating the very essence of the music. Her voice is in splendid condition; it has a silvery tone and is of uncommon purity. She has little difficulty cutting though Mahler’s orchestration and is helped in this by Rattle, who is mindful of avoiding excessive weight. Der Abschied (The Farewell), the immense final movement – over thirty-one minutes - is magically atmospheric and memorably interpreted. This is stunning singing from Kožená who makes an intense and affecting emotional impact.

I’ve taken a great interest in Stuart Skelton’s work since he bowled me over with his performance in the title role of Britten’s Peter Grimes in David Alden’s production for English National Opera, streamed live to cinemas in 2014. The Sydney-born tenor’s weighty, ringing tone provides a lovely contrast to Kožená’s cultured voice and he comes close to matching her capacity for vocal expression. For warmth and natural unforced power Skelton has few peers and he interprets these Mahler songs so magnificently that it seems unfair to single out any one in particular.

Rattle’s approach to Das Lied von der Erde with the impeccably prepared Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks feels freshly minted. I can’t fault the beautiful and unaffected playing of total conviction from one of the world’s finest orchestras. Living up to its reputation, the welcoming acoustic of the Herkulessaal has impressive clarity, revealing lots of fine detail with a satisfying balance. Although the recording is live, there is very little extraneous noise and applause has been removed. Jörg Handstein’s booklet essay ‘Farewell and Eternity’ is both instructive and interesting, and the label can be commended for providing sung German texts with English translations.  
There are several excellent recordings of Das Lied von der Erde in the catalogue that I admire. My first choice is the captivating live recording from Rafael Kubelik and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with soloists Janet Baker and Waldemar Kmentt. Recorded in 1970 at Herkulessaal, Munich, that account is on Audite. Worthy of praise, too, for its affecting performance is Carlo Maria Giulini and the Berliner Philharmoniker with soloists Brigitte Fassbaender and Francisco Araiza, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1984 in Berlin. I also admire the dramatic account from Lorin Maazel and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner recorded 1999/2000 at Herkulessaal, Munich on RCA Red Seal. Responding as resolutely as I do to this latest recording, I am happy for it to stand alongside Kubelik.

Michael Cookson

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