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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (version for chamber ensemble by Arnold Schoenberg, completed by Rainer Riehn) [62:01]
Gerhild Romberger (mezzo), Stephan Rügamer (tenor)
Detmolder Kammerorchester/Alfredo Perl
rec. 17, 21-22 October 2013, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster

Mahler never heard Das Lied von der Erde, his penultimate completed work, nor the Ninth Symphony, which followed it closely. He was probably working on them more or less simultaneously. Despite his state of health, he managed not only to complete the full score of Das Lied, but also to prepare a version with piano accompaniment in place of the orchestra. There is however a third version, started by Arnold Schönberg — who saw Mahler as his mentor — in 1920, and scored for a chamber orchestra. Schönberg didn’t finish the arrangement, but his detailed notes enabled the German composer Rainer Riehn to create a performing edition in 1983.
There are strong arguments in favour of reducing the orchestration. Because Mahler never prepared the work for performance, he was unable to make the many changes and adjustments he customarily did for his other works. There are two solo voice parts, tenor and mezzo-soprano, who have three movements each. In live performances, it is always a struggle for them to be heard properly, however sensitive the orchestra and conductor may be. Mahler uses a pretty large orchestra, and may have needed to remind himself that it’s very different for soloists on a concert platform from the operatic stage, where the singer is raised above the orchestra, who are furthermore in a pit. The idea of a reduction makes a lot of sense, and Schönberg went for quintets of solo strings and wind, plus piano, celesta and full percussion.
Does it work? Yes and no; the smaller-scale central movements do gain in clarity, and the tenor, for example, can characterise the third movement, ‘Von der Jugend’ (‘About Youth’) and bring out its delicate humour. The big outer movements, with their grand climaxes and teeming textures, are a different matter. Here even a chamber ensemble can make enough noise to cover a singer who has anything less than a genuinely big voice.
That is undoubtedly a problem for Stephan Rügamer on this recording. He has a light, quite small voice, and in the opening ‘Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ (‘Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sadness’), though his accuracy is remarkable, we often lose the beginning of phrases that begin lower down in the voice. He sounds sorely pressed at the huge central outburst, with its chilling graveyard vision of the ape. He is much more at home in ‘Von der Jugend’ and in the fifth movement, ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (‘The Drunkard in Spring’), where he handles the dizzy solo part brilliantly.
The mezzo Gerhild Romberger has a splendidly firm sound, beautiful throughout the wide range required. She also uses her voice intelligently, finding a different, darker tone for the long-awaited ‘friend’ who arrives towards the end of the ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’). Her problem is that she can sometimes sound emotionally disengaged, lacking in musical and poetic insight into this highly charged music.
Schönberg’s orchestration — and its completion by Riehn — does present problems, chiefly connected with the role of the piano, which can make the ensemble sound a bit like a school orchestra – not, I hasten to add because of the quality of the Detmold players, which is excellent, but because it evokes that memory of the music teacher at the piano desperately ‘filling in’ all the missing parts. Listen to track 1, around 1:55, where there is a trumpet solo which is re-scored for the piano, and you’ll see what I mean – it happens again later. Something also goes badly awry at around 6:20 on track 4, ‘Von der Schönheit’; either there is an error in the bassoon part, or the player has got his fingers in a tangle, as he ends up trilling on the wrong note.
To balance these negatives, there are some wonderful moments where the reduced instrumentation greatly enhances clarity – in the last movement, for example, for the little outburst of bird-song at ‘Die Welt schläft ein’.
This is a highly creditable recording; but it is up against some very stern competition, from an unexpected source. A few years back, Philippe Herreweghe, best known for his Bach, made a wonderful CD of this version of Mahler’s masterpiece with the Musique Oblique Ensemble . The balance of the instrumental forces works far better, and he has two quite superb soloists in tenor Hans-Peter Blochwitz and mezzo Birgit Remmert. Blochwitz has exactly the right blend of heroism and lyricism in the ‘Trinklied’, thrilling and moving. Remmert rivals Janet Baker in her heartfelt sensitivity – and there cannot be higher praise than that. If you want this version of the work, that is the one to go for; it’s on Musique d’Abord HMA 1951477.
Gwyn Parry-Jones