GUSTAV MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde – Jonas Kaufmann, tenor/Vienna Phil./Jonathan Nott – Sony

GUSTAV MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”)– Jonas Kaufmann, tenor/Vienna Philharmoniker/Jonathan Nott – Sony Classical 88985389832 (4/17/17) 61:05 ***:

First, the glorious, extravagant and often emotionally painful music of Gustav Mahler. If I were to recommend one or two works by the early twentieth century composer-conductor who was a genius in so many respects, I would probably name his songs; most likely the Rückert Lieder and the present Das Lied van der Erde. More so than even the most beautiful but wrenching of his symphonies do we get, in his vocal works, a sense of the brilliant man who was often beset by joy and contentment that could lapse into deep melancholy within the same opus. The texts chosen are the clue. In the case of “Song of the Earth” Mahler drew his inspiration from the Hans Bethge collection of ancient Chinese poetry, “The Chinese Flute.”

The tone of the words and Mahler’s music varies but remains largely optimistic from the opening “Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow” to “of Youth” and “of Beauty.” Each of these songs is a paean – almost an admiration – to the topics of young love, young beauty and young exuberance. However, the tone shifts suddenly, dramatically and with what we now consider very ‘Mahlerian’ with the closing “Der Abschied.” The ‘farewell’ in this case was written specifically as the composer’s reaction to and devastation over the death of his young daughter. This large, symphonic song cycle gives us a true sense of the overt emotion and magnificent; occasionally extravagant orchestration that were Mahler’s forte.

Now, this recording is unique – and apparently controversial – for its use of just one singer; the mega-talent Jonas Kaufmann whom many consider the ‘heldentenor’ of his generation. Mahler wrote Das Lied for a tenor and an alto and orchestra; Mahler himself indicated that the tenor part could be substituted for with a baritone which has happened a fair amount over the years including with the amazing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This is this only recording I am aware of though in which one singer takes all six lieder.

I have seen a fair number of reviews online both ‘professional’ and ‘listener’ input that are not complimentary to this recording (including some which are, frankly, unnecessarily glib or ‘catty.’) This is a very “in your face” recording. The opening brass calls plus Jonas’ entrance into ‘The Drinking Song…’ are very sonically pronounced and one cannot help but be on full alert – maybe even check your stereo volume as I did; to make sure. From that perspective – full, clear and attention getting sound – Sony succeeds again with all the sonic delights. Jonas Kaufman is, indeed, an amazing singer with a beautiful but ‘manly’ timbre and he brings verve to this score. Some quibble with his performance along the lines of interpretation; of some ‘excess.’ I have my doubts on that. I have heard this work many times; both live and on record and it’s Mahler. ‘Excess’ is – to an extent – expected.

The biggest exceptions I have read to this recording have little to do with Kaufmann. It is all about the solo voice iteration. No, this is not what Mahler ordered and some considered this version an experiment at best and an abomination at worst. I like this recording a great deal but because of Jonas Kaufmann’s heart-rendering performance and that of the Vienna Philharmonic under Jonathan Nott (a new name to me).

I first heard this piece years ago in Chicago with René Kollo and Yvonne Minton, who had just recorded it. (It’s really good!) So, will this male-only rendition with Jonas Kaufmann take the place of my Solti recording or the old but esteemed Christa Ludwig-Fritz Wunderlich recording? Probably not. But it is very good and I would encourage listeners to grasp the ‘Mahler’ within this score and worry a little less about the atypical rendition. ‘Der Abschied’ remains one of Mahler’s singularly most moving works right down to the last utterances of “ewig, ewig.”

Then go listen to the Rückert Lieder or the excruciatingly dark but lush Kindertotenlieder.

—Daniel Coombs

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