This is the latest installment in the continuing series of Mahler recordings on hybrid SACDs from the San Francisco Symphony’s own label. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has distinguished himself as one of the world’s leading Mahler interpreters. Because of the success of the symphony series so far, the orchestra is now recording the Mahler song cycles as well. They will include Das Lied von der Erde and Songs of a Wayfarer. It turns out the earliest Mahler work for soloists, chorus and orchestra – a secular cantata composed when he was only 20 and had yet to hear any of his orchestral music performed live – has already been recorded by the SF Symphony in live performance in May and June of 1996 for RCA Victor/BMG. It is Das klagende Lied – very roughly translated as “Song of Lament.”
These recordings were made with multichannel equipment, probably in view of the many elements of soloists, chorus and full orchestra which were involved. The 5.0 surround mix sounds as good as the other SF Symphony SACDs, which is state-of-the-art. The disc comes in a larger slip cover with the large printed note booklet, and on the rear of the cover it instructs to go to a Sony website, but the listed URL is a typo. The correct one is: www.sonymusic.com/sacd. However, there is no specific information there about this recording. Suffice it to say this is a very successful enhancement for hi-res surround.
The cantata is in three main sections, with long instrumental sections around the vocal sections. The tale concerns a beautiful queen who concedes that she will wed whatever knight brings to her a certain rare red flower from the forest. Two brothers go to find the flower, the younger finds it and is killed by the older, who takes it to present to the queen. Later a traveling minstrel finds a bone in the forest, carves a flute out of it, and the flute sings the story of the killing of the young knight – whose bone it is. The minstrel takes the flute to the wedding party for the older brother and the queen, where the flute accuses the murderer-knight directly. The queen faints, the guests flee and the castle collapses.
Many hints of Mahler’s musical language to come are to be heard in Das klagende Lied. They are just not stated as confidently and blatantly as in his symphonies to come. Some of the tone-painting accompanying the words is ingenious, and the quartet of soloists perform at a high level. The first of the three movements is almost as long as the second and third combined, and drags a bit in some spots, but the second picks things up and the third is a dramatic statement of great power – especially the concluding and unexpected giant Thump, which seems to prophesy the hammer strokes to come in his Sixth Symphony. There are complete English and French translations of the lyrics.
– John Sunier