The latest in the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler series on SACD is another winner, though it comes up against the competition of about seven other versions on SACD – including some not distributed in the U.S. Not being heavily into vocal music, the only other SACD version I had was the Fritz Reiner Chicago Symphony three-channel recording from 1959. On the sonic level alone, that one is outclassed quickly by this new recording – made live in San Francisco just last year. The RCA disc lacks the clarity and transparency of the SF Symphony version, plus it also lacks the libretto, which is really important for these six songs sung in German with orchestral accompaniment. Another contrast between the two is Reiner’s use of a female voice for the songs sung in this new release by baritone Thomas Hampson.
Mahler conceived of The Song of the Earth shortly after the first publication in German of translations of some ancient Chinese poetry. He was impressed by the poets’ visions of earthly beauty and the verses may have echoed his increasing awareness of his own mortality. He began work in l908, calling it a “Symphony for Tenor, Contralto and Large Orchestra,” even though he failed to number it as one of his symphonies.
The large orchestra – which includes celesta, two harps and mandolin – is used in a very chamber-like fashion to support the songs with subtle and often touching skill. Only in three of the songs is the full orchestra ever heard playing together. The last song, The Farewell, is over 30 minutes long – almost equaling the preceding five songs. It is a magnificent success as a “song-symphony” hybrid.
The hi-res surround sonics are up to the highest standards of the SF Symphony series (and a vast improvement on their last few RCA Red Seal CDs). Both vocalists are excellent and realistically placed with the orchestra – not sounding in your face as on some recordings. The extensive notes do include a libretto, by the way.
– John Sunier