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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Robert Dean Smith (tenor);
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) / Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 14 October 2018, Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
German text & English translation included
PENTATONE PTC5186760 SACD [62:43]

A few years ago, I reviewed another recording of Das Lied von der Erde in which Dame Sarah Connolly was one of the soloists. Like this recording, that was a live performance, captured in 2011.

In the 2011 performance the tenor was Toby Spence, about whose singing I had some reservations. In this more recent version we hear the American, Robert Dean Smith. Frankly, Mahler makes unreasonable demands on his tenor in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’. The tessitura is almost unrelievedly punishing and, moreover, the soloist often has to compete with a large orchestra playing full-out. Yet, having said that, Wagner was similarly demanding of tenors – and other voices too – and over considerably longer timespans. Even making that allowance, though, it seems to me that Robert Dean Smith sounds strained at times. I turned to the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in the famous Klemperer recording and felt his performance offered much more in several ways. He seems much more at ease with the demands of the vocal line, though one must acknowledge immediately that his was a studio performance whereas Smith was recorded live as he projected his voice into the large space of the Philharmonie. However, what I think is undeniable is that Wunderlich is significantly the more expressive of the two, making much more of the words. And the sound he produces is much more open than Smith achieves; by comparison the American’s voice sounds narrow. It was only when I sat down to type this review and looked for a link to a previous review of the Klemperer recording that I discovered that, as so often, Tony Duggan had hit the nail right on the head when he referred to “Fritz Wunderlich's golden, well-microphoned tenor”. That one phrase sums up a key difference between the sound of these two tenors but it also reminds us that Wunderlich was singing straight into the studio microphone. With Smith there’s a sense of struggle – not inappropriate, you may feel – whereas Wunderlich seems to be the master of the tessitura. If you move away from the comparison, though and listen to Smith in isolation he offers much in this song and he partners effectively with Jurowski’s dynamic conducting. I feel that Jurowski conveys well the surge in the music and he’s less emphatic than Klemperer tends to be.

Smith and Jurowski combine to good effect as well in the other two tenor songs. I particularly liked the way both singer and conductor point the music in ‘Von der Jugend’. In ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ Smith puts across the drunkard’s desperation to make merry through drink, though I still hanker after the easy open quality of Wunderlich’s voice.

Sarah Connolly’s first two phrases in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ will engender confidence in any listener. The singing is perfectly poised and the sound of her voice per se is a source of great pleasure. Furthermore, Jurowski ensures that the orchestral accompaniment is ideally pointed. In this song I especially admired the outpouring of vocal tone at ‘Ich komm zu dir, traute Ruhestätte!’ Here, Conolly’s delivery is perfectly attuned to the music and to the sentiment of the words; it’s typical of the great understanding that this artist displays here and in the other songs. Singer and orchestra bring porcelain refinement to the outer stretches of ‘Von der Schönheit’ while the central fast episode is urgently delivered, the music expertly articulated at pace and never sounding gabbled.

At the very start of ‘Der Abschied’ it stuck me that the way Jurowski gets the orchestra to deliver the music doesn’t have the sense of foreboding that I’ve heard in some other performances. Klemperer was the obvious comparison to choose and, sure enough, his opening is more ominous, whereas Jurowski seems to apply a lighter touch. I make the point not as an implied criticism of Jurowski but merely to point out that he follows his own, valid path. In this performance, I loved the way that singer and orchestra make the music flow at the passage beginning ‘Der Bach singt ….’The music has just the right degree of lightness and transparency. A few minutes later, at ‘Es wehet kühl…’ a magical stillness is achieved. The first part of this song, using words after Mong-Kao-Jen, achieves a final glorious climax at ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens…’ Here, Sarah Connolly delivers the vocal line as a wonderful, emotive outpouring and the voluptuous orchestral playing matches her perfectly.

The long orchestral passage that follows (13:03 – 18:47) is conducted very well indeed by Jurowski. He’s less deliberate and darkly dramatic than Klemperer but that’s of a piece with the different approaches that I noted at the start of the movement. Jurowski’s rendition is, nonetheless, imposing and powerful. In the remainder of the song (from ‘Er stieg vom Pferd’) the words that Mahler set are after Wang-Sei and, for my money, inspired him to the most arresting music of all. I need to mention that there’s an unfortunate error in the Pentatone booklet: all the text and translation for this section has been omitted. The performance of this closing section is very fine indeed. At the start, Sarah Connolly conjures a spell-binding hushed narrative. Then she – and Jurowski – are marvellously communicative in the passage that begins at ‘Wohin ich geh?’ Her singing of ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall…’ (Mahler’s own words) is memorable; the music is a heartfelt outpouring and Connolly rises to the challenge with great feeling, ardent tone and superb technique. The very end is beautifully done: superbly controlled singing and playing mean that ‘Ewig’ fades from our hearing into the far horizon.

This recording of Das Lied von der Erde is a fine achievement. I greatly admired Sarah Connolly’s 2011 performance but I think she surpasses that earlier version here. Vladimir Jurowski conducts his fine orchestra perceptively, and Robert Dean Smith makes a good contribution, though I don’t think he matches Sarah Connolly’s expressiveness. The stereo layer of this SACD gives good results; the recording presents a natural concert hall sound image. The booklet is useful apart from the unfortunate omission of part of the text of ’Der Abschied’.

John Quinn

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