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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908/09) [61.33]
Anna Larsson (contralto); Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker/Ádám Fischer
rec. live, 11-15 January, 2018 Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, Germany
CAVI-MUSIC 8553407 [61.33]

As part of its continuing series of Mahler symphonies the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, under its principal conductor Ádám Fischer with the Fifth Symphony, has reached volume six with Das Lied. Recorded live in 2018 Fischer has the benefit of the soloists Anna Larsson (contralto), Stuart Skelton (tenor).

Composed between the Symphonies Eight and Nine the background to Das Lied von der Erde can be traced to 1907, a year that was so devastating for Mahler. Almost certainly the work is indicative of the composer’s emotional state. In June his four-year-old child Maria Anna (known as Putzi) died and soon after he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Feeling he could no longer withstand the malicious campaign long waged against him at the Vienna Opera, Mahler resigned, conducting his final opera performance there in October. In June 1908 Mahler, who was still experiencing shattering grief, found some consolation in working on Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony of six Lieder for two solo voices and orchestra. Mahler was clearly captivated by the texts of Hans Bethge’s anthology of Chinese Tang Dynasty poems freely adapted into German titled Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese flute) and adapted seven of the poems into the six-movement song cycle. In 1908 Mahler, in a letter to Bruno Walter, wrote “I believe this will be the most personal thing I’ve ever done.” Most of the score was written by Mahler in 1908 but it seems he was still applying finishing touches in 1909. Sadly, Mahler didn’t live to hear the score’s première which was given under Bruno Walter in November 1911 at Munich. I recall that renowned Mahler conductor Leonard Bernstein described Das Lied von der Erde as Mahler’s “greatest symphony.”

Swedish contralto Anna Larsson, who is in great demand for her Wagner roles and is experienced in Lieder, has been performing this Mahler work with its German text throughout her career. Larsson sings extremely well, throughout her register. In fine condition, her voice is weighty but not too unwieldly and with the assistance of splendid phrasing she places much store on the intimacy and meaning of the text, drawing the listener in especially in the lengthy final movement Der Abschied (The Farewell) where she persuasively creates a radiant atmosphere. Stuart Skelton is a singer whose work I have been interested in since being bowled over by 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. Sydney born the tenor’s naturally warm, ringing tone is balanced with a talent for vocal expression and he interprets these Mahler songs so splendidly.

One senses that Ádám Fischer, such a thoughtful Mahlerian, is very much at one with the emotional and technical challenges of Mahler’s music. Clearly well prepared the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker provide lucid and unaffected playing that is extremely focused, unified and committed. Recorded live at the Tonhalle, Düsseldorf in conjunction with Deutschlandfunk, there is reasonable clarity although the singers seem to be set back just a touch for my taste, and I prefer recordings with a more conspicuous sense of depth. Although recorded live there is virtually no extraneous noise to worry about and no applause is retained. In the booklet Ádám Fischer has provided a short article giving his thoughts about Das Lied von der Erde and there’s a detailed essay by Jens Schubbe both of which are instructive and interesting. A significant drawback is the annoying lack of sung German texts with English translations although there is a link to a website where the texts
can be accessed.

In the catalogues there are a number of excellent recordings of Das Lied von der Erde and as a guide I think it appropriate to give my most admired accounts. My primary selections include the captivating live recording from soloists Janet Baker and Waldemar Kmentt with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Rafael Kubelik recorded in 1970 at Herkulessaal, Munich on Audite. On a par, although rather different in approach, is the beautiful live 2018 Herkulessaal recording with soloists Magdalena Kožená and Stuart Skelton responding convincingly with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Sir Simon Rattle on BR Klassik. Worthy of praise too for its affecting performance is Carlo Maria Giulini and the Berliner Philharmoniker with soloists Brigitte Fassbaender and Francisco Araiza recorded in 1984 at Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. I also admire the dramatic account from Lorin Maazel and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with soloists Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner recorded 1999/2000 at Herkulessaal, Munich on RCA Red Seal. Ádám Fischer’s account of Das Lied von der Erde with the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker with soloists Larsson and Skelton is committed and highly enjoyable and it’s always good to hear new recordings but the competition is extremely strong.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

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