Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09)
Roberto Saccà (tenor); Stephen Gadd (baritone)
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
rec. 8-13 February 2016, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg
German texts and English and French translations included TUDOR 7202 SACD [61:28]
During his time as Principal Conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker (2000-2016) one of Jonathan Nott’s most significant ventures was the Mahler symphony cycle he recorded for Tudor. Right at the end of his tenure in Bamberg he has added Das Lied von der Erde.
Maher himself stipulated that Das Lied could be performed by a tenor and either an alto or a baritone but it would be fair to say that the majority of performances – and certainly the majority of recordings – opt for a female singer rather than a baritone. My own very strong preference is to hear a female voice in the even-numbered songs and that’s not simply because I’m more accustomed to the female timbre. The character of the songs is often more in tune with the female voice and a top class mezzo can bring a range of expression, nuance and colouring that most male singers can’t achieve. Jonathan Nott, however, has chosen to use two male singers for his recording.
I’ve heard Stephen Gadd on several occasions, both on disc and live, and generally to good effect though I’ve not experienced him in an undertaking such as this. Roberto Saccà, however, is a singer whose work I’ve not previously experienced. He makes a good impression. His fine, ringing tenor is heard to good advantage in ’Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ and he puts over well the drinker’s air of desperation to be merry. He also conveys an element of longing at “Das Firmament blaut ewig” and the grotesque passage about the ape is convincingly done both by Saccà and the orchestra. Saccà displays a pleasingly light touch in his second song, ‘Von der Jungend’ and here he benefits from Jonathan Nott’s sprightly tempo. I much prefer this to the sturdy speed that Klemperer adopts in his classic account of the work in which his tenor is Fritz Wunderlich (review). The Tudor performance is nimble and I very much approve. In his final song, ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ Saccà again offers excellent ringing tone where it’s appropriate but he’s also successful in the passages which call for a more gently lyrical style . He also shows imagination in the way he characterises the episode concerning the bird.
When the late Tony Duggan surveyed recordings of Das Lied von der Erde a few years ago there weren’t many recordings that used a baritone instead of a female singer and though a few more all-male versions have been issued since then they are still the exception rather than the rule. Tony referred to Simon Rattle’s 1995 recording, which I bought when it came out. Thomas Hampson sings the low-voice songs for Rattle. In the first two songs, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’ Stephen Gadd sings well but at every point where I made a comparison I felt that Hampson offers more. For instance in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ Gadd’s voice is well controlled and the tone is good. However, I don’t feel he puts sufficient of himself into the music; it’s all a bit too calm and controlled. Hampson, by contrast, makes more of the words – without undue exaggeration – and he seems to me to be more imaginative and compelling. That said, as I had the Klemperer set to hand for tenorial comparisons I couldn’t resist sampling Christa Ludwig in this song. She offers a very different kind of experience and one which, frankly, I find much more stirring and downright interesting than either of the male singers.
In ‘Von der Schönheit’ Hampson seems to put more spring into the rhythms than Gadd. To my ears Gadd is somewhat one dimensional overall. A little later on, in the passage beginning “Sonne spiegelt” Gadd’s singing is more appealing than previously but even so he doesn’t really draw me into the song in the way that the best female interpreters do. Both of our male singers struggle somewhat with the articulation of the words in the song’s hasty central section but Hampson is the more audibly challenged thanks to Rattle’s very brisk – too brisk? – tempo.
Slightly to my surprise honours are more even between Hampson and Gadd in the greatest test of all, ‘Der Abschied’. At first I didn’t think this would be the case since Hampson seems to offer a wider variety of vocal colour and more fantasy in his singing of the first few lines of the poem. However, at “Es wehet kühl” (9:23) Gadd and Nott achieve a very good sense of stillness and here Gadd is as convincing as his American rival. He’s also impressive in the passage beginning “Ich sehne mich”. But when we get to “O Schönheit, o ewigen Liebene” I find that despite their best endeavours neither male singer can match the sense of rapture that a top-class mezzo such as Ludwig or Janet Baker can achieve. By chance at around the time that I was evaluating this present disc I was also listening to a new Naxos issue of the work. This uses the chamber orchestration but the singing of the very fine mezzo on that disc, Susan Platts, also offered much more than a baritone in passages such as this.
At “Er stieg vom Pferd” I think Hampson is a bit more daring than Gadd in the recitative-like passage. The ecstatic bars from “Die liebe Erde” (25:20) find Gadd giving his all, allowing the bitter-sweet music to pour out; here Hampson is somewhat more elevated in his approach. Good though both are I strongly prefer a female voice (Mother Earth?) in this passage.
Overall, you won’t be surprised that my choice between Thomas Hampson and Stephen Gadd falls firmly in Hampson’s favour. There’s much to admire about Gadd’s singing but Hampson does more with both words and music. He’s more daring and, as a result, more moving.
However, it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s much to commend this new version. I’ve already discussed the contribution of Roberto Saccà. We must also take into account the orchestral playing and the conducting. The Bamberger Symphoniker are seriously impressive. This is a very exposed score yet it never feels that way and the playing is consistently refined. All the solo playing is excellent but I must single out for special praise the superb flautist in ‘Der Abschied’. Jonathan Nott has the measure of this score, it seems to me and I think he conducts it extremely well. He brings out the details in the score without any exaggeration.
There’s another feature of this release that calls for comment: the recorded sound. I’ve heard several Tudor discs and I’m regularly impressed with the results their engineers achieve. This recording is definitely up to the standards of the house. I listened to this hybrid SACD using the stereo option as I don’t have surround sound facilities. I found the sound to be truthful and very natural throughout. The details of Mahler’s ever-subtle and imaginative orchestration register beautifully and everything is very well balanced. One detail that I must mention is the tam-tam in ‘Der Abschied’. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the instrument so magnificently caught in a recording. Even the softest strokes of all register marvellously. At all dynamic levels the tam-tam is presented with spine-tingling realism here.
I’m bound to say I wish Jonathan Nott had opted for the more usual choice of a mezzo in this recording and that’s no reflection on Stephen Gadd’s singing. I just think a female voice can convey so many more nuances than a baritone. Nonetheless, this account of Das Lied von der Erde is not to be underestimated and it’s presented in marvellous sound – it knocks the 20-year-old EMI sound for Rattle into the proverbial cocked hat. Those who have been following Jonathan Nott’s Mahler symphony cycle will be glad he’s added Das Lied to it.