GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911): Das Lied von der Erde—A. Coote (mezzo-soprano), B. Fritz (tenor); Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam; Marc Albrecht [Recorded in Beurs van Berlage, Yakult zaal, Amsterdam, 21 – 22 June 2012; PentaTone PTC 5186 502]
When Gustav Mahler débuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 1 January 1908, as the conductor of Anton Schertel’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a review published in New York’s The Press stated that ‘for the amalgamation and concentration of musical forces, for a reading of the score intense, poignant, thrilling, the honors went to Gustav Mahler, who appeared for the first time in New York and established himself immediately as one of the greatest conductors and most striking musical figures with whom New Yorkers have come into contact.’ It is perhaps surprising to music lovers in the 21st Century, when he is almost universally included among the ranks of the greatest composers, that Mahler’s music did not enjoy widespread acclaim during his lifetime: admired as a conductor and master of orchestral timbres, Mahler’s efforts as a composer were viewed with greater skepticism and misunderstanding. 21st-Century musicological opinion suggests that, to adopt a colloquialism, Mahler’s music was ‘ahead of its time,’ progressive beyond the capacities of contemporary audiences to appreciate it. It is likely that it was during Mahler’s inaugural season at the Metropolitan Opera—when his conducting assignments included Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Beethoven’s Fidelio—that his creative spirit was engaged by Hans Bethge’s German bowdlerizations of Chinese poems by Li Bai, published in 1907 under the title Die chinesische Flöte. Combining poems by Li Bai, Qian Qi, Mong Hao-Ran, and Wang Wei with lines of his own composition, Mahler worked at his ‘Symphony for Tenor, Contralto (or baritone—the substitution was authorized by the composer), and Large Orchestra’—which he entitled Das Lied von der Erde at least in part as a superstitious avoidance of designating the score as his Ninth Symphony owing to his perception of the ‘curse’ of symphonists dying before their ninth efforts in the genre came to fruition—in 1908 and 1909. The first performance of the work was conducted by Bruno Walter, a noted champion of Mahler’s music. Mahler suggested that Das Lied von der Erde was his most personal work, an assessment with which Maestro Walter was inclined to agree, but the opinion of Sir Henry Wood, expressed when Das Lied von der Erde reached London in 1913, is an astute summation of much of the musical establishment’s regard for Mahler’s work in general: ‘excessively modern but very beautiful.’ While the charge of excessive modernity is hardly relevant now, more than a century after the score’s composition, few musicians or listeners would dispute the beauty of the music. What has been certain since its first performance is that Das Lied von der Erde is a demanding task for vocal soloists and a magnificent tour de force for orchestras and conductors.
Though Das Lied von der Erde in many ways ignores the symphonic traditions of Mahler’s musical ancestors, the score nonetheless adheres to certain conventional structures and possesses its own unique symmetry. The soloists alternate in the six ‘Songs,’ though it is to the contralto soloist that the most substantial movement, the closing ‘Der Abschied’ is given. The piece begins with ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,’ a melancholic and deeply ironic drinking song that requires of the tenor feats of Wagnerian stamina, Mahler pitting the full power of the orchestra against repeated excursions into the tenor’s upper register. Then follows ‘Der Einsame im Herbst,’ a lament of considerably greater restraint shaped by extended strands of melody, the orchestra reduced virtually to the dimensions of chamber music. The tenor soloist returns in ‘Von der Jugend,’ the most audibly ‘Oriental’ of the movements, ending with a concentrated reprise of the primary theme of ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde.’ The mezzo-soprano must wait out a long orchestral prelude before returning in ‘Von der Schönheit,’ another movement of understated passions. The tenor makes his final contribution in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling,’ a movement that plays with many of the themes of earlier movements and challenges tenor, orchestra, and conductor with manic changes of tempo. ‘Der Abschied,’ the closing movement, is one of the most extraordinary creations for the contralto voice. Nearly as long even in a quick-tempo performances as the other movements combined, ‘Der Abschied’ poses problems with its emotional bleakness, and the quirky, quasi-cadenza-style of the writing causes conductors to experience nightmares. Even in a performance of little musical or philosophical insight, the cumulative impact of Das Lied von der Erde can prove fascinating. Entering an extensive discography including recordings by many of the world’s greatest singers, orchestras, and conductors, it is fortunate that this performance—recorded by Pentatone with balanced and detailed sonics that are nothing short of brilliant—offers insights aplenty.
Formed in 1985 when three orchestras merged, the Netherlands Philharmonic is young by the standards of European musical institutions. Pestered by budget woes and uncertainty about its primary performance venue, the Orchestra has nonetheless achieved impressive standards of musical excellence: if not yet mentioned in the same breath as their counterparts in Berlin, Dresden, London, or Vienna, the Netherlands Philharmonic players are gaining the recognition their uncompromising musical integrity deserves. Conducted in this performance by the Orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Marc Albrecht, the players exhibit great virtuosity, with especially beautiful playing by the horns and fine solo turns by the concertmaster and principal flautist. Musically, each of Mahler’s Symphonies has an individual profile: in the Second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection,’ for instance, Mahler confronts his musical forbears on his own terms, refining the influences of Monteverdi, Bach, Händel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms into symphonic language poised to shape musical progress throughout the 20th Century. In a sense, Das Lied von der Erde is the score in which Mahler examines and summarizes his own endeavors as a symphonist: present are the imposing grandiosity, the playfulness, the mystery, the sorrow, the impetuosity, the joy, and the fear that occur in Mahler’s previous Symphonies. The alternating emotions of the individual movements of Das Lied von der Erde complicate the conductor’s task of maintaining a fluid but propulsive dramatic momentum, but Maestro Albrecht paces this performance with warmth and vision, allowing the idiosyncrasies of Mahler’s orchestration and thematic development to breathe freely but keeping the performance within boundaries of musical grace and good taste. It is apparent that the Netherlands Philharmonic players respond instinctively to their Chief Conductor’s baton, as there is an audible sense of conductor and instrumentalists sharing a common concept of Das Lied von der Erde and pursuing that concept with absolute confidence in their abilities.
It is rare that a symphonic work relies as heavily upon the work of singers as does Das Lied von der Erde. Unlike some composers who have included voices in their symphonies, Mahler does not employ the soloists in Das Lied von der Erde merely as instruments in the orchestra. To apply a somewhat poetic conceit to the score, it might be argued that the orchestra is the Earth invoked by the title while the soloists are the voices of humanity, the sacred and the profane. Voices of all sizes and amplitudes have succeeded in the music, especially when sensitively supported by conductors, and a glory of this performance is that the soloists respond with such dramatic commitment and vocal accomplishment to both the demands of Mahler’s score and the dictates of Maestro Albrecht’s conducting. Burkhard Fritz might be described as a Jugendliche Heldentenor, a singer for whom a core of vocal strength does not prevent softness of approach (and volume) and tonal beauty. In Das Lied von der Erde, Mr. Fritz’s singing combines elements of the power of Heldentenors like James King, René Kollo, and Jon Vickers with the lyricism of Ernst Haefliger, Julius Patzak, and Fritz Wunderlich. Following Maestro Albrecht’s lead in building climaxes based both upon the music and the text, Mr. Fritz mostly avoids forcing the voice, deriving strength from the cresting lines in the orchestra. In ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,’ in which the rising tessitura pushes the voice ever nearer to its limits, Mr. Fritz utilizes his excellent diction to depict moments of vocal stress as manifestations of the recklessness and absurdity of the text. Throughout the performance, Mr. Fritz’s singing captures the abandon and the absolution inherent in Mahler’s score, and merely as vocalism his is an uncommonly assured reading of a part that in three symphonic songs is more demanding than many tenor rôles in full-length operas.
It might seem atypical for an artist so acclaimed for her singing of rôles in the operas and oratorios of Händel to take on a work like Das Lied von der Erde, but mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is anything but typical. Though her voice is lighter of timbre than those of her illustrious predecessors, Ms. Coote is perhaps the sole claimant to the distinction of continuing the legacy of British singers like Kathleen Ferrier and Gladys Ripley. Ms. Coote is a more accomplished singer of opera than either of her estimable countrywomen, her versatility and unflappable technique enabling her to sing rôles as vastly different as Sesto in Händel’s Giulio Cesare, Léonor in Donizetti’s La favorite, and Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther with equal effectiveness. In this, her nearest musical relative is perhaps Dame Janet Baker, for whom Early Music, standard repertory, and contemporary works were all comfortable territory. Some of the most famous singers of the 112 years since the première of Das Lied von der Erde have been undone by its requirements. The tessitura is troublesome, the vocal lines residing in some passages in contralto depths but rising in others to the upper octave of the mezzo-soprano voice with requirements of power and absolute security of intonation. Ms. Coote flinches in the faces of none of these requirements, her voice kept rounded and firm of tone in lower passages with a judicious management of chest voice. Like Mr. Fritz, Ms. Coote enunciates the text with exceptional clarity and allows her musical performance to be guided by an expertly inward but unsentimental interpretation of the text, ideally supported by Maestro Albrecht. As her music ascends, Ms. Coote’s voice opens alluringly, spinning beautiful head tones that compensate with intonation of instrumental accuracy and firm projection for what they lack in Hochdramatische heft. Not even the greatest singer among her rivals has surpassed the raptly beautiful mezza voce that Ms. Coote maintains throughout ‘Das Abschied,’ the voice reduced to a whisper of transcendent acceptance of mortality. Benjamin Britten wrote that the final chord of ‘Das Abschied’ is ‘imprinted on the atmosphere.’ This might be said of the whole of Das Lied von der Erde, whether storming in angst, tripping in inebriation, or transitioning from life to death, but few singers have made this union of music, text, and psychological depth as palpable and cathartic as Ms. Coote does in this performance.
The greatest works of art invariably inspire contemplation, self-assessment, and metaphysical considerations of who we are and how our lives fit into the gloriously unfathomable macrocosm that swirls around us. Only an indescribably great artist could search his own soul and find within it a work like Das Lied von der Erde. Such a work deserves nothing less than the very best efforts of the artists who perform it, but it is also the sort of work that can make magic even in deeply-flawed performances. Perfection being foreign to the human condition, as Mahler understood so profoundly, this cannot be said to be a Das Lied von der Erde wholly without flaws. It is, however, a Das Lied von der Erde that achieves grandeur without grandstanding and, with performances that rise far above that sadly rare commodity of mere competence, takes the listener on a genuinely enlightening journey.