Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
arranged by Reinbert De Leeuw (2010)
Lucile Richardot (mezzo)
Yves Saelens (tenor)
Het Collectief/Reinbert De Leeuw
rec. January 2020 Muziekgebouw Amsterdam. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as lossless (wav) 16/44.1 press preview.
Another month, another Das Lied von der Erde. Hardly had Tony
analysis of Mahler recordings been updated with Ralph
Moore’s survey of this song symphony than a new recording appeared from
Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics CCSSA40020 –
review). Now another recording appears from Alpha and yet
another from Pentatone -
review. I've heard that only once so far, so I can't comment.
To sum up the state of affairs after listening to the Fischer, a splendid
performance in every respect but one, very well recorded, my preference
remains with Janet Baker and Bernard Haitink (Philips Eloquence 4681822) or
Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich with Otto Klemperer (Warner 2564607598
or box set). The big BUT about the new Iván Fischer, as with Baker and
Haitink, is that the tenor soloist lets the side down somewhat. I prefer
Janet Baker with Haitink to her live recording with Rafael Kubelík on
Audite (AUDITE95491), but she is much better partnered by Waldemar Kmentt
on that recording.
I said that this was another recording of Das Lied von der Erde,
but there is a difference. Alpha are not giving us exactly what it says on
the cover, any more than they are with another of their recent recordings
where ‘Lully Armide (1778)’ turns out to be an adaptation of the
opera in a different style almost a century after the original.
This is not Mahler as we know him, though it is akin to the chamber
versions of his symphonies by Schoenberg and others, in this case as
arranged by Reinbert de Leeuw, who conducts it. The change is not as
extreme as the BIS recording where the poems are translated back into
Mandarin (BIS-SACD-1547 –
review) – an implausible project because Bethge’s texts are
adaptations of English translations, further adapted by Mahler, not direct
from the originals. Mahler himself sanctioned reductions of his symphonies
he composed a piano accompaniment for Das Lied von der Erde
(Warner Apex –
review) but this adaptation often sounds markedly different from the
work we know and love.
Some may think the changes for the better – de Leeuw apparently did – but
my initial reaction was one of annoyance at this tinkering with the
original. It's different from modern completions of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony,
the best of which sound idiomatic –
the composer hadn’t quite fixed the details – with the latest version of Deryck
Cooke’s realisation (Cooke III) about as good as it gets and, in the right
Das Lied von der Erde
is often seen as Mahler’s farewell to life, which opens performances to the
danger of over-sentimentalisation. If Mahler really meant the work to be
void of hope, why did he add those final words to Bethge’s poem at the end
of Der Abschied?
Die liebe Erde allüberall / Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! /
Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! / Ewig... ewig
... (The dear earth everywhere blossoms in Spring and greens anew!
Everywhere and eternally the distances shine blue. Eternally …). That
returns us full circle to the awakening of Spring in his First Symphony, especially as
that work was originally conceived with the Blumine movement.
De Leeuw, who died shortly after making and recording this adaptation, was
terminally ill and seems to have regarded the project as his own farewell
to life. Nevertheless, the performance doesn’t underplay the more
hedonistic aspects of the words and music, hedonism which emerges from a
composer reportedly anything but over-indulgent.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum, but I can’t find it in myself to enthuse over all the all-too-apparent
changes in texture. The conductor seems to have come to the conclusion that
the music needed to be spiced up and jollied up, not only with unidiomatic
instrumentation in some places but with emphatic tempo variations in
others. Without seeing de Leeuw’s version of the score, I can’t be sure
that nothing has been added, but individual instruments are clearly more
prominent in the sparer textures – and the piano, harmonium and celesta are
alien to Mahler’s original.
I'm less happy than Simon Thompson was with another scaled-down recording
which de Leeuw made with Het Collectief of music by Busoni, Berg, Webern and
All of which is a shame because there are many aspects of the performance
to like. Neither soloist would be quite my ideal, but they are well
matched. Yves Saelens may not be Fritz Wunderlich, but he does have the
necessary Heldentenor technique and he makes a better job of his
part throughout than Robert Dean Smith (Channel) or James King (Philips).
Everything stands or falls by the mezzo in the longest section, the final
movement Der Abschied, the farewell. Iván Fischer gives the music
space to expand here, with an overall time of 29:35, within seconds of
Klemperer, whose late recordings are generally regarded as too slow – a
snap judgement which is not always fair. De Leeuw is even more expansive at
Lucile Richardot generally sings well and sustains this slow tempo well,
but she’s no Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig, or, indeed, Iván Fischer’s
mezzo, Gerhild Romberger, though she negotiates her way well though some of
the curlicues that the changed instrumentation seems to throw around some
of the music. Her final Ewig … part of the words which Mahler
added to the poem, is beautifully hushed, but I would have preferred a
clearer diminuendo down to the pp over the last syllable
of the mezzo part (fig. 65) and from the instruments down to their closing ppp. Mahler instructs the performers to let the music die away
completely – gänzlich ersterbend – but that implies something to
die away from. I haven’t, of course, seen the score of the de
The instrumental performers, too, give of their best. Het Collectief is a
small ensemble, essentially a scaled down orchestra, but de Leeuw throws a
piano, celesta and harmonium into the mix. I liked much about the Linn
recording of Erwin Stein’s chamber reduction of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony
(Linn CKD438 –
DL News 2013/12), but felt that the use of a harmonium and two pianos was treading on
dangerous ground. Add the celesta on the new Alpha, and the ground gives
way in places, even though the important double bassoon is retained and the
sense of stillness that pervades the music at times is easier to achieve
with reduced instrumentation. Best all, the soloists are less in danger of
being swamped by the smaller instrumental forces.
My press preview came in 16/44.1 sound, the equivalent of CD quality. With
fewer instruments to encompass, the recording is very clear, though there’s
plenty of punch where it’s needed, as in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde. The extra clarity is welcome,
but it’s a two-edged sword when it makes some of the less happy of de Leeuw’s
tinkerings so apparent. The clarity of the recording also sometimes shows
Richardot’s diction to be less than ideal.
Overall, while I don’t entirely share the underlying notion that Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler’s conscious farewell to the
world, I liked many aspects of this new recording very much; it retains
much of the magical appeal of the original. I doubt that I shall be able to
play it too often, however; if I didn’t know the work so well, I might not
be so annoyed at some of the changes of texture. But I do know and love the
original too much to make do with this partly successful reduction.