MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde – Christa Ludwig, alto/ Waldemar Kmentt, tenor/ Vienna Sym. Orch./ Carlos Kleiber – Vienna Symphoniker

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde – Christa Ludwig, alto/ Waldemar Kmentt, tenor/ Vienna Sym. Orch./ Carlos Kleiber – Vienna Symphoniker WS 007, 58:40 [Distr. by Naxos]  (10/14/14) ****:

This recording from 7 June 1967, which has had several inept pirate incarnations, will stir controversy for some time. Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) enjoyed a cult status among collectors and connoisseurs, noted as much for his absences from the concert hall as for the brilliance of his appearances.  The music of Mahler did not sit well with Kleiber – although even in music he preferred he tended to restrict himself to a narrow performing repertory – he considered Mahler messy and emotionally over-wrought. Kleiber, however, substituted for Josef Krips on the occasion of the Vienna Symphony’s fiftieth performance of the song-cycle symphony, part of an extended Mahler cycle to which Abbado, Maderna, Pretre, Sawallisch, Swarowsky, and Somogyi had all contributed their talents. Critical response to the Kleiber performance ran the short gamut of cool to hostile, claiming the music “was still beyond him at present,” to the “consolation” that Christa Ludwig’s voice had served as a corrective to “Kleiber’s loud matter-of-factness.”

While Kleiber may have remained relatively detached from the Mahler output, he certainly takes command in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde with tenor Waldemar Kmentt (b. 1929).  In fact the more hysterical passages – in dramatic contrast to the objective, dispassionate lyrics – seem to attract the conductor to a visceral surge of orchestral fury. Kmentt takes more time to warm up to the visionary nightmare – the mocking figure of an ape – that confronts the narrator with a morbid implication for human mortality.   The gentle humor in pentatonic scales of Von der Jugend appeals more to Kmentt, who approaches the verses with a lightness that serves as a foil to the implied transience of the theme. Ludwig shines in the double variations that constitute Der Einsame im Herbst and again in the extended Abscheid, which basically moves in the form of a sonata-allegro.  Ludwig does not convey the shattering, tragic pathos in her voice that Kathleen Ferrier possesses, but her color-control has been well-harmonized with Mahler’s selective instrumentation, in the low winds, harp, and flute. Even critics hostile to Kleiber’s rendition praised his precision in the score; and Kleiber had always made it his personal mission to study, to inhabit, a composer’s world from well within the score and its preserved tradition. The persistent whirling motif, akin to the morschen Tande dieser Erde (“corrupt refuse of this Earth”) from the drinking song, comes to haunt the orchestral texture, so perhaps Kleiber wants the momento mori aspect to dominate our consciousness more than any metaphysical solace may provide.

We might construe the relative briskness of Kleiber’s tempos, keeping the entire performance to within an hour’s length, as a sign of his peremptory attitude to this music. But I think not. While the interpretation does not indulge in romantic rhetoric, it has much visceral passion and alarming clarity. I would think that this approach comes close to what Pierre Boulez and Bruno Maderna accomplished in Mahler, preserving the composer’s subjective humanism within a spectrum of existential skepticism. Ludwig’s plaint in the last pages becomes a plea for meaning in a cold universe, much like the bitter optimism we find in a verse by Stephen Crane, in which he asserted to the cosmos, “Sir, I exist.”  Here, the “ewig” exclamations from Ludwig assert the breadth of that claim.

—Gary Lemco

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