12 October 2013

CD REVIEW: Gustav Mahler – DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (S. Connolly, T. Spence, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Y. Nézet-Séguin; LPO-0073)

Gustav Mahler: DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (LPO-0073)

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911): Das Lied von der Erde—S. Connolly (mezzo-soprano), T. Spence (tenor); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Recorded ‘live’ at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London, on 19 February 2011; LPO-0073; 1CD, 64:05; Available from Amazon, Presto Classical, directly from LPO, and from all major music retailers]

Perhaps owing to the heightened sensibilities of the artistic temperament, composers have historically been a superstitious lot.  Gustav Mahler, whose anxiety could border on paranoia even when more or less justified by his health or the often sad circumstances of his personal life, was deeply aware of the disingenuous ‘curse of the ninth’ that was interpreted as a cosmic injunction against composers surviving to compose tenth symphonies: indeed, it is surmised by some musicologists that Mahler’s hypersensitive response to the ‘curse’ popularized its prominence in musical lore.  Though the premise of the curse is based upon situations more fantastical than factual, Karma punished Mahler for the sense of triumph produced by his well-intentioned efforts at circumventing the curse’s reach.  After composing his mammoth-scaled Eighth Symphony in 1906, Mahler immersed himself in Hans Bethge’s German-language edition of Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty as a means of coping with the emotional catastrophes he endured during 1907.  This spurred Mahler’s imagination to the creation of another large symphonic work, conceived as a setting for vocal soloists and large orchestra of texts by Li Bai, Mong Hao-Ran, Qian Qi, and Wang Wei.  Rather than designating the new work, composed during 1908 and 1909, as his Ninth Symphony as he might have done, Mahler entitled the score Das Lied von der Erde.  With this safely behind him, Mahler completed the Symphony in D that he numbered as his Ninth, but the ruse was futile: the composer died before completing his Tenth Symphony.  If Das Lied von der Erde was the work of a man on the run, so to speak, it nonetheless engaged the best of his creative energies and emerged as the most intensely personal expression of his unique genius.  Every quality that makes the music of Mahler memorable courses powerfully through Das Lied von der Erde: the frenzied expressions of joviality through clenched teeth, the biting irony, the casual decadence, and, above all, the exquisitely unconquerable melancholy.  The allures of the score are such that virtually all ambitious conductors, even those who generally exclude Mahler’s Symphonies from their repertories, are drawn to it.  It was perhaps inevitable that the path traveled by a young conductor who enjoys as sterling a reputation as that of which Québécois Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin boasts should lead to Das Lied von der Erde.  With a discography that includes performances led by many of the finest Mahler conductors of the past century, Das Lied von der Erde hardly needs new recordings.  When the paths of Maestro Nézet-Séguin, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and tenor Toby Spence intersected with the wondrous music of Das Lied von der Erde in February 2011, though, the result was a performance of great beauty and integrity that revealed that, slightly more than a century after its creation, Mahler’s score remains an endlessly enthralling exploration of the most basic elements of human psychology and a special opportunity for insightful musicians like these to leave their distinct footprints in a musical field traversed by many of Classical Music’s greatest artists.

Das Lied von der Erde has benefited enormously from the advances in recording technology during the past few decades: a performance as important as Otto Klemperer’s 1951 Vox recording with Elsa Cavelti, Anton Dermota, and the Wiener Symphoniker is significantly undermined by the sonic deficiencies of the recording.  The production team of London Philharmonic’s house label captured the Orchestra’s 2011 Das Lied von der Erde in superbly spacious sound that encompasses a very wide range of dynamics without jeopardizing clarity.  Unlike many recordings derived from live performances, there are no worrisome echoes that distort the delicate sonorities of Mahler’s music, and there are virtually no signs of the recording’s provenance in terms of audience noises.  Throughout the performance, the refined playing of the London Philharmonic is placed within a natural acoustic, allowing the Orchestra’s consistently secure intonation and ideal balance among sections to shine.  The strings are wonderfully subtle, but the orchestral laurels are won by the woodwinds with playing of consummate beauty and nuance.

Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation of Das Lied von der Erde is surprisingly introverted for such a youthful conductor.  There are magnificent outbursts of intensity, such as are demanded by the score, but the performance as a whole is shaped by thoughtful attention to detail and a deeply-felt response to the shifting emotional energies of the music.  When Mahler’s tonal tectonic plates collide, the musical landscape quakes under the tension evoked by Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s baton.  More palpably than in many performances, this recording of Das Lied von der Erde conveys a sense of continuous progression from suffering to catharsis.  With the personal but wholly apt inflections brought to the score by Maestro Nézet-Séguin, the score seems to depict not so much the ambiguities of life and death as the struggles of being defeated by life and learning to live anew.  The overwhelming, slightly sickly beauty of Mahler’s score is brilliantly served by Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s approach to the score, and the Oriental elements of the music are handled with gossamer delicacy that is appropriate to their cultural associations.  Even in the most exuberant moments of the score, Maestro Nézet-Séguin is attentive to the underlying sadness and grotesque irony.

The three songs for tenor are conducted by Maestro Nézet-Séguin with impressive intensity and sung by Toby Spence with humor and dramatic conviction.  The tessitura of Mahler’s vocal lines is punishing, but Mr. Spence strides through them with confidence and panache, conquering the high-flying passages with far greater ease than the larger-voiced tenors more frequently heard in the music can manage.  The opening movement, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,’ is a fearsome test of the tenor’s stamina, with each return of the refrain ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ rising a semitone.  Mr. Spence does not avoid strain, but Mahler did not conceive this music with vocal ease in mind.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin gives Mr. Spence space in which to approach the greatest hurdles without rushing or forcing, and Mr. Spence reciprocates with singing of extraordinary grace and tonal beauty, even in the highest register.  ‘Von der Jugend’ draws from Mr. Spence singing that is the very embodiment of freshness, the timbre boyish but unfailingly poised.  The quixotic changes of tempo in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ present challenges to both singer and conductor, and both Mr. Spence and Maestro Nézet-Séguin rise to the occasion.  The solo flautist and violinist combine with Mr. Spence to achieve feats of true beauty.  Despite the desperate high spirits portrayed by Mr. Spence and Maestro Nézet-Séguin, there is ultimately something pathetic in the exhortations to ‘just let me be drunk!’  Mr. Spence’s singing is an unmitigated delight, however, and he challenges the standards set in the tenor’s songs by the golden-voiced Wunderlich and the unforgettably poetic Haefliger.

The selections sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist are more obviously fatalistic, dealing with the transience of beauty and—metaphorically—life.  First, there is the notion of the fading of natural beauty in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst.’  There is profound meaning in the paradox of the imagery in ‘Von der Schönheit’ of the flowers gathered by young women being trampled by the young men whose attention they covet: is it possible that, in the broadest terms, destruction is the truest reward of devotion; that, as Oscar Wilde wrote, the dual blessing and curse of humanity is to destroy the objects of love?  Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, the Orchestra, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin pursue Mahler’s discourse on these conceits with exceptional focus and understanding.  It is in the immense final movement, ‘Das Abschied,’ that Mahler’s genius blossoms most movingly, the examination of taking leave from both the natural cycle and the sentimental entanglements of life given poignant expression for both the voice and the orchestra.  Mahler was concerned that the darkness of ‘Das Abschied’ would prove an impediment to audiences’ appreciation of the music, but how can music such as this fail to draw an audience into its embrace, especially when it is performed as well as it is on this recording?  Mahler also voiced wonder at the rhapsodic nature of his creation, asking Bruno Walter whether he could fathom how to conduct ‘Das Abschied,’ something that he himself could not sort out.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin handles the movement deftly.  Perhaps no conductor can be said to truly master this music, but Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s leadership is superior to that of many famous conductors: he knows where ‘Das Abschied’ begins and ends, and he displays the inherent intelligence of his musicianship by allowing the music to speak for itself, following rather than forcing the flow of Mahler’s savage but strangely structured impetus.  A paragon of stylishness and vocal richness in every piece that she performs, Sarah Connolly has nonetheless never sung better than in this performance of ‘Das Abschied.’  She has so many remarkable forbears in this music: Kerstin Thorborg, Kathleen Ferrier, Lili Chookasian, Christa Ludwig, and Dame Janet Baker are among the finest of them.  Ms. Connolly suffers nothing in comparison with these great ladies: indeed, her singing combines the finest qualities of these musical ancestors, the concentration of Ferrier and Baker allied with the raptly intelligent phrasing of Chookasian and the sheer beauty of Ludwig.  Throughout the range required by the music, Ms. Connolly’s voice is full, perfectly supported by an astonishing breath control, and genuinely lovely.  The suppleness with which she manages the crests of the vocal lines in ‘Das Abschied’ is refreshing.  Supported by Maestro Nézet-Séguin, Ms. Connolly gives as complete a performance of the mezzo-soprano songs as can be heard today—and, for that matter, as has been heard in any day—and a compelling display of the full gamut of her artistry.

In a sense, this recording of Das Lied von der Erde is a dangerous performance.  Though no recording could hope to say all that can be said about such a multi-faceted score or to offer new vistas of a landscape so well documented on records, this London Philharmonic Orchestra recording casts revealing light on the extent to which indifferent, insipid performances now pass for world-class music-making.  When exposed for extended periods of time to mediocrity, even the most refined ears gradually accept competence as a substitute for excellence.  A recording like this one illustrates in musical terms Portia’s exclamation in Act Five of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—‘How far that little candle throws his beams!  So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’  Performances like those offered by Sarah Connolly, Toby Spence, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra shine all the more brightly in the ‘naughty world’ of diminished standards of musicianship.  With so few performances today achieving the levels of musical preparation and eloquent execution exhibited by this team of artists, there can be no doubt that recording this performance of Das Lied von der Erde was a very good deed.

Gustav Mahler at the time of the composition of DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, photographed by Moritz Nähr (1907) Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907, by Moritz Nähr