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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09) [64:14]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, January 2018, Herkulessaal, Munich
Texts and translations included
BR KLASSIK 900172 [64:14]

In a detailed and overwhelmingly positive review of this disc published back in August, my colleague Michael Cookson contributed an interesting potted history of the genesis of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a piece many consider to be an un-numbered symphony. I shall thus restrict myself to some personal observations of this fascinating new account in comparison to Sir Simon Rattle’s previous 1997 Birmingham recording, which is seemingly currently unavailable.

Rattle’s original EMI recording of the work, now two decades old, has often been defined by his choice of a baritone (Thomas Hampson) rather than the usual alto (the tenor soloist on that occasion was Peter Seiffert); on the present disc he deploys the diamantine if not-quite-alto voice of his long-time collaborator Magdalena Kožená, alongside the rugged Antipodean tenor Stuart Skelton. Two decades ago, the Birmingham performance was widely admired by critics, in terms of the objectivity of Rattle’s conception of the piece, the quality of the orchestral playing, and the detail in the recording. The view of Rattle’s soloists was less conclusive and much of the criticism was directed at Hampson’s sporadic lack of engagement with the words rather than the use of a baritone per se. I would argue that Das Lied von der Erde is one of those mysterious, elusive works that can stand very different types of interpretation, provided the performance itself coheres. (Indeed it’s a work whose many recordings each seem to defy clear critical consensus). To my mind the earlier Rattle reading did cohere, though in my case I had no issue with Hampson’s (or Seiffert’s) singing, I simply prefer the alto voice in this work. Like many others, I was brought up on the Ferrier/Patzak/Walter/VPO recording, and cannot escape its deeply emotional connections (Christopher Howell writes more eloquently about it than I ever could in a review that is a masterpiece of economy) and implications. Of course, it’s a recording that lies at the opposite end to Rattle on the ‘subjective/objective’ continuum.

I can state categorically that the new disc is the best engineered Lied I have ever heard, and I can confidently say the same for the orchestral playing. It is beyond outstanding, a tribute no doubt to Rattle’s meticulous preparation. Some concrete examples: the atmospheric, rustic flute textures from 4:10 in the opening ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’ (how naturally they emerge!); the rawness of exposed lonely woodwinds in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, and the contrasting velvet warmth of the lower strings. In the fourth song, ‘Von der Schönheit’, the interplay of trumpet, percussion and harp is truly ravishing while the dynamic contrasts in the ‘sarcastic scherzo’ ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (The Drunkard in Spring) are spectacularly vivid. And then there’s ‘Der Abschied’ during its half-hour duration it sometimes feels that the Bavarians effect some texture or gesture that makes one sit up open-mouthed in every other bar. Both playing and recorded sound are utterly luxuriant. I find it quite astonishing that this is a live performance (it is not a surprise that the audience seem transfixed throughout).

As for the singing I find Skelton’s virile tenor amiable and most agreeable. I think he gets inside the words and characterises the essence of each song rather well. Our critical response to a particular voice is inevitably linked to whether we actually ‘like’ it personally and like Michael Cookson I find Skelton’s voice warmly communicative and technically secure, especially in the first song where he manages to convey simultaneously both passion and irony. He copes splendidly with the challenging vocal writing in the third song, ‘Von Der Jugend’. I certainly prefer his contribution to Peter Seiffert’s on the earlier disc. Inevitably though, in the context of the whole work the tenor part is almost light relief compared to the alto (or baritone) who has to contend with the mighty ‘Abschied’, which temporally speaking occupies half of the entire work and arguably demands even more in emotional terms.

Magdalena Kožená adds a completely fresh dimension to these songs. While she is classed as a mezzo rather than an alto, her voice possesses a distant quality that fits most aptly into Rattle’s conception of the whole piece. She captures both the purity and world-weariness of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ in the same breath, but in ‘Von der Schönheit’ one begins to become more aware of a harder, edgier quality. At times her delivery approaches Sprechgesang. By the time we reach ‘Der Abschied’ it is obvious that nowadays Rattle sees Das Lied as pointing squarely to the future – to the universe of Schoenberg, Berg and Schreker – and seemingly seeks to liberate it from the trappings of the past. There is a sense of disconnection. To my ears, this is most apparent at the iconic “Ewig…..ewig….” conclusion, where Kozena’s voice, and each instrumental phrase, seem almost disembodied.

In this way then Kozena and Rattle (not forgetting the magnificent Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) offer distant, surgical precision in each phrase of ‘Der Abschied’ which epitomises this riveting account of Das Lied. It is by no means ‘un-beautiful’, on the contrary: it projects an objective beauty akin to studying minute life forms under a microscope. Rattle’s fresh insights lead me to perceive the work in an almost entirely new light. At first hearing I was beguiled yet perplexed; by now (after the fourth) I’m beginning to perceive a cogency that eluded me the first time. I suspect many readers will respond similarly. In any case, perhaps Das Lied von der Erde is such a personal ‘experience’ that one can never really ‘know’ it. Rattle’s new reading then may be at the opposite end of the interpretative spectrum to Ferrier, Walter et al, but I suspect the beautiful and challenging sounds on this disc will ultimately enshrine it as my favourite modern recording of the work.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Michael Cookson




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