MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde – Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano/ Burkhard Fritz, baritone/ Netherlands Philharmonic Orch./ Marc Albrecht – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 502, 63:03 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Mahler, like so many other composers of the era, was haunted by the idea of a ninth symphony. So much so that he went out of the way to make sure that the piece had a title, The Song of the Earth, and considered it only an elaborate song cycle even though the title page mentions it as a “symphony for tenor and alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra”. Those who love the piece know it is ridiculous to consider it anything but a symphony. We are familiar with his other cycles, collections of songs based on a single poet (Rückert Lieder) or a group of themed songs from a single assemblage (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) and they are a far cry from the work under consideration. No, make no mistake, this is a symphony writ large with textual considerations (Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute) serving only as a springboard for his imagination. And like the Fourth Symphony, the use of the large full orchestral forces is used sparingly and with rarified consideration, much of the piece receiving an almost chamber-like treatment.
Mahler conceived the piece in 1907, the year following one of the most hellish times of his life when his eldest daughter Maria passed away from Scarlett Fever, he was forced out of the Vienna Opera, and he was diagnosed with a heart ailment that would eventually finish him off. The Chinese poetry questioned, as he surely did during that time, the co-existence of the “unutterable beauty of the world, the eternal pain and puzzling nature of all that exists.” As such it provided the springboard into a piece that the composer said was “the most personal thing I have created up to now”, a sentiment echoed by his friend Bruno Walter, and touted by Leonard Bernstein as the greatest piece the composer ever wrote. Its six movements are certainly novel, and he in effect created a new genre of “song-symphony” which other composers were to imitate later. This was one of the pieces that Mahler created to help himself come to terms with a very difficult time in his life, one that stands in stark comparison to the gigantic Eighth, composed only two years before, and that Mahler thought his “greatest”. Circumstances forced him to divest some of his most personal feelings in this music.
Marc Albrecht proves himself a sympathetic Mahler interpreter in this music much on the Bernstein side (an almost 30-minute Abschied), and the Netherlands Philharmonic certainly adds their name to the ever-increasing list of Mahler-proficient orchestras around the world. Of course much hinges on the quality of the singing, and while Coote and Fritz may not wipe the memory clean of such pairs as Baker/King (Haitink), Ludwig/ Wunderlich (Klemperer), or Ferrier/ Patzak (Walter), they are very close and in many places equal to those notables, and none of the above ever had sound nearly as stunningly evocative and dynamically wide as what we have here. Anyone grabbing this edition will not be disappointed at all, and audiophiles will probably find it in their players more than any other current version.