Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the eleventh installment, I re-examine one single work of the late romantic Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), my second-favourite composer after Bach, and who will get even more exposure this year than usual as he died a century ago. Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), composed in 1908-1909, is a symphony for two vocal soloists and orchestra after Hans Bethge's poem The Chinese Flute. There are six movements, the odd-numbered more up-tempo for tenor, the even numbered more slow for alto (except for an explosion in the fourth movement). I have five distinctly different versions of this masterpiece, one of my ten all-time favourite classical compositions.

Original version for tenor and alto
My version: Wunderlich/Ludwig/Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras/Klemperer (EMI, 1967, 63 min)
My version: Kollo/Ludwig/Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1975, 66 min)
My version: Patzak/Ferrier/Wiener Philharmoniker/Walter (Decca, 1952, 61 min)
My version: Araiza/Fassbaender/Berliner Philharmoniker/Giulini (DG, 1990, 64 min)
My version: King/Baker/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink (Philips, 1975, 65 min)
The Klemperer was my introduction to this masterpiece, and the singing of Fritz Wunderlich is still unsurpassed. With Christa Ludwig in great form as well, this is vocally the outstanding version. The orchestra under Klemperer is marvelous - but the recorded sound is a letdown. Therefore I decided to get the second listed version as well. Rene Kollo is remarkably good, if not quite Wunderlich, Christa Ludwig shines here too, and the orchestra is even better. And the recording is much, much better. Recently (2011), I acquired two more versions. The legendary 1952 Walter recording with the unsurpassed Kathleen Ferrier and a more than adequate Julius Patzak shows its age obviously, but the performance is breathtaking. Especially poignant is the near-death theme, given that Ms Ferrier would perish from cancer a year later. Then, there is the Giulini, which has a personal history for me: I actually tried to buy this CD in the early nineties - twice, in two different shops. In both cases, they could not find the actual CD which they stored separately from the jewel cases. This year, I got it as a gift. The recording is the best of the four, with excellent orchestral playing. Araiza is adequate if not outstanding and suffers at places from the fact that he is not a native German speaker. I originally wanted to buy this version for Fassbaender, one of my favourite Lieder singers. Surprisingly, although she has made great recordings of Mahler's gorgeous orchestral song cycles, I find she is missing some nuances here. Good, but definitely not in the league of Ferrier and Ludwig. In 2011, I bought the Haitink. Excellent orchestral work (this is core repertoire for the Amsterdam orchestra), great singing by Baker, and Decent performances by King - but vocally not as strong as some others. All in all, of the five versions, I would pick von Karajan with Kollo and Ludwig.

Alternative version for tenor and baritone
My version: King/Fischer-Dieskau/Wiener Philharmoniker/Bernstein (Decca, 1966, 67 min)
The original score calls for tenor and alto soloists, but Mahler also includes the note that "if necessary, the alto part may be sung by a baritone". For the first fifty years or so after the work's premiere, this option was little used until the outstanding baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau decided to have a go at it. This recording has a good tenor (James King), even though he just succumbs to the competition of Wunderlich and Kollo in the original version - of course they both have the advantage that they are native German speaker. The even numbered movements are now sung by Fischer-Dieskau, and they are stunningly beautiful. A direct comparison with the alto versions (Ludwig) leads me to prefer the baritone as such by a very small margin. However, in the context of the complete work, the alternation tenor/alto tends to work still marginally better than tenor/baritone to my taste. But a decent classical music collection should find a place for both - I would want them both if I were to start again.

My version: Liang/Mok/Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Shui (BIS, 2007, 70 min)
The German texts of Das Lied von der Erde were based on translated versions of Chinese poems by Li Bai, the famous Tang dynasty wandering poet. In 2005, a Cantonese version was prepared by Daniel Ng. The Cantonese language was chosen as it bears closest resemblance to the lost 8th Century Northern Mandarin dialect in which the original texts were written. I have been trying to get hold of this version, but when I finally succeeded, I was disappointed. The Cantonese lines do not really add something, and indeed distract as we are used to the German lines. This holds especially for the tenor. The sheer class of the composition is still undeniable, but all in all, this is an interesting but in the end superfluous experiment.

Adapted version for tenor and alto and chamber orchestra
My version: Blochwitz/Remmert/Ensemble Musique Oblique/Herreweghe (HM, 1994, 63 min)
Das Lied von der Erde is scored for a massive orchestra consisting of piccolo, three flutes (the third doubling on second piccolo), three oboes (the third doubling on English horn), three clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons (the third doubling on contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, percussion (timpani, bass drum, side drum (omitted in the revised score), cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tamtam, glockenspiel), celesta, two harps, mandolin, and strings. Arnold Schoenberg began to arrange it for chamber orchestra, reducing the orchestral forces to string and wind quintets, augmented by piano, celesta, harmonium and percussion. Schoenberg never finished this in his lifetime, and the arrangement was completed by Rainer Riehn in 1980. This severely reduced version has two obvious advantages: it is easier to arrange a performance, and there are more choices available for the singers. In particular the tenor, who does not have Wagner Heldentenor qualities to combat the usual stunning orchestral forces, and can show more expression than usual - as demonstrated very well on this recording by Hans Peter Blochwitz. And as good as Christa Ludwig's performances are, with Birgit Remmert I have less problems actually hearing the words. The disadvantage is of course that some of the lusciousness of Mahler's orchestral tapestry is unavoidably lost. On the other hand, it is stunning how much of the atmosphere of the original work is maintained in this bonsai version. In the end, I still clearly prefer the fully orchestrated versions, but this is well worth listening to.

Adapted version for tenor and alto and piano
My version: Vorzellner/Haselboeck/Berchtold (Cavi-Music, 2009, 65 min)
When I read that a version had been recorded where the piano replaces the orchestra, two thoughts crossed my mind: [1] that is utterly ridiculous; [2] I want to hear it. Well, the result is astonishing. The orchestral colours are translated surprisingly well to the piano, and the singing is even more clear than in the chamber version. Both singers are very good (if not superb) and the piano playing is excellent. If the orchestral version did not exist, this would definitely make it to my short list of  hors concours compositions - as it is, I still deem it essential.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: Original version for tenor and alto
Essential: Alternative version for tenor and baritone, Adapted version for tenor and alto and piano
Important: Adapted version for tenor and alto and chamber orchestra
Good to have:
Not required: Original version, but with Cantonese text