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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09)
Xiaogang YE (b. 1955)
The Song of the Earth, Op. 47 (2004)
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano); Brian Jagde (tenor)
Liping Zhang (soprano); Shenyang (bass-baritone)
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra/Long Yu
rec. December 2020, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Concert Hall, Shanghai
German & Chinese texts with English & German translations provided
Premiere Recording (Ye)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 7452 [58:34 + 39:47]

The Chinese conductor and composer involved in this programme see it as means of breaking down cultural barriers, thus the pairing of these two works, separated by a century and of very different provenance, is intended to both link and contrast them. Xiaogang Ye’s modern composition sets same poems as Mahler employed, but rearranged into a different order and in the original Chinese verse written during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907 CE); Mahler’s German texts were from Die chinesische Flöte, Hans Bethge’s free translation of a French-language edition, and being thus twice removed from the originals could not capture the nuances apparent to a native speaker who had studied the ancient Chinese texts. Ye also presents a less pessimistic Weltanschauung: “Mahler’s music is full of disillusionment, but my work expresses a middle-aged man remaining ambitious about the world.” Nonetheless, to quote conductor Long Yu, ““You can hear that the last piece of the Mahler, ‘Der Abschied’ and the last piece in the Chinese work both purvey exactly the same emotion”.

Last year I posted a survey of Das Lied von der Erde and so feel as if I have a reasonable perspective from which to judge this new one. First impressions are good as the sound is so vivid and well-balanced and the Shanghai horns blare magnificently but Brian Jagde’s entry instantly modifies my rapture, as his vibrato has an obtrusive pulse, there is a constant glottal catch in his line as he attacks phrases and top notes are windy. The opening of Der Trunkene im Frühling is strained but he manages the falsetto phrases neatly. His German and commitment are unimpeachable, but we have been spoilt by the recorded performances of tenors such as Wunderlich, Vickers and Heppner.

This is not the first time Michelle DeYoung has recorded this piece but that first recording was as long ago as 1999 for Eiji Oue and although she is now only in her early fifties, her vibrato, too, has loosened alarmingly and she is labouring. Furthermore, there is a metallic impurity in her emission of tone which compares very unfavourably with richer, smoother-voiced predecessors. I have been accused over being over-sensitive about that vexed point of how a true, correct vibrato should sound, to which I can only say, listen for yourself and decided on your own level of tolerance for what to my ears is a wobble. That fault obscures her word-colouring, which is not, in any case, anywhere near as subtle or varied as it could be. Her lower register is cloudy and lacks resonance; she sounds under-powered and is perilously close to running out of breath in the passage beginning “Das Ross” in the middle of Von der Schönheit. Such vocal flaws make Der Abschied something of a marathon rather than the rapt suspension of time and space it becomes when sung by steadier voices. The beat in the repetitions of “Ewig” robs them of exaltation.

On the credit side, I am mightily impressed by both the conducting and orchestral playing here; Long Yu is quite daring in his use of contrasting tempi and phrases most affectionately, securing transparent textures in orchestration which can sound too thick and ploggy in less sensitive hands. There are some lovely touches, such as the harp arpeggio at the end of Von der Schönheit. Obviously I was hitherto unfamiliar with both conductor and orchestra before hearing this recording, but on this showing, I will look out for future releases of their cooperation.

The second, shorter, modern companion work is in a very different mode with music based on the five-note scale, with swoops and glissandi over a lush base of traditional Chinese instrumentation, in which percussion instruments are prominent, yet much of the orchestration reminds me of the Second Viennese School with an overlay of shimmering French Impressionism. It is very large-scale music and soprano Liping Zhang has a voice big enough to ride it. As a Westerner unfamiliar with the tropes of classical Chinese music, I am perhaps in no position to assess its merits; on the other hand, the ethos of the project was to build cultural bridges so I feel that I should be able to respond. Alas, I am somewhat at sea and cannot say that I derive much pleasure from music which to my ears sounds jarring, percussive and frequently discordant. The third song provides moments of repose, such as in the opening flute solo followed by a winding soprano arioso, where I can admire her firm, confident vocalism and especially her sustained top C sharp starting at 5:15which concludes the song but we are so often adrift from tonalism that I feel lost. Bass-baritone Shenyang is rich-toned but I find that the amplitude of his vibrato is sometimes excessive – and I apologise that my critique of the voices here is repetitive. There is little of the aching melancholy which characterises Mahler’s last song in the crazed whooping four minutes into Ye’s Farewell and I fail to see the supposed rapport between the two compositions.

I cannot, in all honesty, say that I have any desire to return to this double disc; others of a more catholic and adventurous taste might feel differently about Xiaogang Ye’s music but I cannot help but observe that it presents something of a challenge. I feel more confident about asserting that crossing the bridge from East to West would have been made easier by finding better soloists, The excellence of the orchestral playing notwithstanding, there are much better versions of Mahler’s song cycle to be had than this one here.

Ralph Moore

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