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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-9)
Anna Larsson (contralto)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra/Adam Fischer
rec. 2018, Tonhalle Düsseldorf
Texts not provided
AVI MUSIC 8553407 [61.33]

Das Lied von der Erde was the first of Mahler’s late works that the composer himself never rehearsed or prepared for performance; it was only premièred six months after his death under the baton of his disciple Bruno Walter. Both Walter and his fellow-Mahlerian Otto Klemperer subsequently made a number of recordings of the work extending through into the stereo era, following the Mahler revival of the 1950s, and their established interpretations have largely shaped the manner in which we continue to hear the work today. In a booklet note with this recording, largely derived from live performances last year, Adam Fischer nevertheless regards Das Lied von der Erde as a difficult piece to deliver, and he is of course absolutely correct; Mahler’s diaphanous chamber-like scoring in many places is extremely tricky to balance, and the sheer weight of his instrumental sound also creates many points where it is almost impossible to achieve a satisfactory equilibrium between voice and orchestra.

It should be said at the very outset that Fischer and his Düsseldorf players make the task of realising such a complicated score sound deceptively easy. Time and again they contrive to elucidate the most complex textures, and even when the results might be unexpected – as in the lurching bass lines in the brass during the funeral march of the last movement – they clearly have an authority which derives from Mahler’s printed score. Even after fifty years of Mahler performances, it is astounding to realise that there are still nuances of this sort which continue to elude conductors, and which repay a close attention to the composer’s micro-managed markings in his manuscripts. The recording engineers, amazingly given the limited material they had to work with, bring out all the detail; the playing is impeccable; and the recorded acoustic is warm without becoming over-resonant. Everyone concerned is to be congratulated on a magnificent tonal achievement.

But of course, Das Lied von der Erde is not just an unnumbered symphony, it is also a song cycle, and the contributions of the vocal soloists are as always problematic – especially when Mahler’s super-human demands, verging on the impractical, are taken into account. These usually centre around the role given to the tenor soloist in the first song. For much of the time, and certainly in the two later movements, Mahler seems to envisage the sound of a lyrical singer who can deliver his vocal lines with honeyed sweetness. But in the opening movement he departs altogether from this model, writing a part that often strains to make itself heard over the tumultuous orchestral writing and then – towards the end, in the description of the ape howling in the graveyard – taking his imagined Wagnerian heroic tenor into the upper reaches of the voice in a manner that defeats the most intrepid singer and can often result in sheer bawling, with both pitch and rhythm consigned to the winds. Many tenors come to grief in these choppy waters, and the only recording that I have ever encountered which seems to come close to the realisation of what I imagine were Mahler’s intentions is that by Fritz Wunderlich (in Klemperer’s EMI reading made as long ago as 1964). And that is in many ways clearly a totally contrived sound, with the voice boosted in a forward balance that sounds totally unnatural in many ways; it seems impossible that Wunderlich could ever have produced such reserves of volume without technical assistance. Given that he is here caught in a live performance without such help from the engineers, Stuart Skelton works wonders in not only making himself heard but doing so without distortion of the vocal line; and in places he manages subtleties of vocal shading that elude even Wunderlich. This, too, then, is a magnificent achievement, and it is confirmed by the delicacy with which Skelton handles the less strenuous third and fifth songs.

Anna Larsson too is a very good singer, but in the contralto songs she is up against much more formidable competition in the shape of earlier rivals. And she seems to be somewhat out of sorts in places during this performance, with the richness of her tone thinned at times in a manner which suggests uncomfortably that her recent excursions into higher-lying dramatic roles such as Kundry might have taken their toll on a voice whose depth and warmth was always one of its most telling features. I don’t think she is altogether helped either by the flowing speed Fischer sets for the second movement, reducing the muted string lines to a mere accompaniment to the oboe melody in the opening bars (one of his few miscalculations). When Larsson enters, with her vocal line mirroring the strings, one feels the brakes being applied in a manner that strikes me as uncomfortable; and at no point does she vocally achieve the etiolated whisper that was such an effective Janet Baker speciality in her Mahler recordings. She recovers and makes a much more imposing impression in the fourth song – her low-lying description of the young men on horseback has a startling sense of presence – and her colloquy with the various woodwind soloists during the unmeasured passages of the finale is beautifully judged. At the very end of the work Mahler famously (it should perhaps be infamously) seeks to dissolve the forward pulse of the music altogether, and as part of this effect he asks his singer to fine the voice down to the barest whisper. This is perfectly well achievable when the singer is a baritone (as Mahler allows) who can employ head voice; but it presents much greater problems for a mezzo or contralto voice. Mahler was fond of asking his female singers to deliver extremely quiet high notes (there are swarms of them in the final pages of his Eighth Symphony) but even he recognised that some singers might find it quite impossible to realise his intentions by the frequency with which he enclosed his pianissimo markings within brackets in his written score, as if suspecting that they might well be ignored by those who find his demands simply unrealisable. In consequence there has grown up a long tradition of singers, from Kathleen Ferrier onwards, who have “stretched” (that is, largely ignored) Mahler’s dynamics and in so doing have produced a different, warmer, but ultimately just as beautiful, effect. Larsson here falls into the second “revisionist” category, and the result is just fine. Indeed it should be said that this recording of Das Lied bears comparison with the very best of its highly distinguished competition – I will refrain from mentioning names.

The booklet, apart from the two pages of ‘thoughts’ by the conductor, also brings us a valuable, interesting and thought-provoking essay from Jens Schubbe, who draws attention in particular to the subtle changes that Mahler made to the translations by Hans Bethge he employed for the musical setting – and the considerable distance that Bethge’s version had in turn moved from its Chinese originals. This might have been better if it had been presented in the booklet together with the texts and translations as sung – the notes otherwise are given in English and German, including eight pages of biographical notes and two full-page photographs, so it can hardly be objected that there was insufficient room to provide these. Adam Fischer seems to anticipate this objection in his notes, where he states unequivocally that “I think that even those concertgoers who have no command of the German language have no problem in gaining quite a precise grasp of what is going on.” Even granted that a certain paradoxical imprecision attaches to words like “quite” and “precise” in that sentence, I think that this is one point in which he is incontestably wrong. And why should “concertgoers” have to “gain” such knowledge, when it would be a simple matter to provide it for the listener in the first place?

Texts and translations of Das Lied von der Erde are of course easily obtained, but the failure to supply them here is unfortunate if it deters purchasers seeking a first recording of the work (and there will always be some) from investigating further. They will miss a splendid experience.

Paul Corfield Godfrey