A Tale of Five Earths

Five different versions of Mahler's great symphony-song cycle

A Tale of Five Earths

There was a time in the 1980's when Mahler was everywhere. You could almost hear a Mahler Second Symphony every week in London, or so it seemed - and the concert halls never ran out of audience. Things have calmed sown somewhat since then, but Mahler's music continues to exert an all-encompassing fascination, devotion and even fanaticism on those who succumb to its spell.

Occupying a unique place in Mahler's oeuvre, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is neither symphony nor song-cycle. Mahler, ever supersticious, really did not want to call it the Ninth Symphony, which is where it would have been placed - despite voices constituing an integral part of his symphonic output, not least in the almighty Eighth Symphony. But Beethoven's nine symphonies cast quite a shadow. Maybe Mahler was right to be cautious: he did write a Ninth Symphony, but did not live to finish his Tenth (but what a piece that is - and we have various completions to play with, most famously Deryck Cooke's). And when it comes to Mahler's superstitions - well, let's just leave that topic for Classical Explorer's post on the Sixth Symphony, where those superstitions are deeply embedded in the structure of the music itself; here's let's concentrate on one of the greatest masterworks of the twentieth century!

In Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler sets poetry from Hans Bethge's anthology of translated sixth century Chinese poetry, Die chinesische Flöte. The first five movements describe a variety of states: a fleeting moment of illumination in a place of dark world-weariness; solitary feelings in Autumn;  the joys of youth; an idealised scene and the sexual feelings of a young girl; the dreamings of a drunk and his dismissal of the whole. And then comes the almighty, half-hour "Abschied" (Farewell), a massive journey into the depths of the soul, emerging into a place of glowing, heavenly wonder. The whole piece is a miracle of orchestration, of wisdom, of meditation, of Chinoiserie. All these, and more.

We start with "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde," one of the most cripplingly difficult pieces for a singer, requiring a proper Heldentenor (a German term meaning "heroic tenor" generally used for the requirements of Wagner's roles such as Tristan, Siegfried and Siegmund). There is a repeated refrain of "Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod" (Dark is life, as is death), each time but one accompanied by a double-bass pizzicato "thud" as if to emphasise the hopelessness of the drunk's Worldview (there's a specific German word for that Worldview too: Weltanschauung). Only in the final bars, the phrase's final appearance, is the double-bass absent; a sliver of hope in a murky world. Robert Dean Smith is one of the finest Heldentenors of the moment: here he is with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer on Channel Classics:

I: Fischer

Robert Dean Smith is the tenor in another recent Lied: that with Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra on Pentatone, a live performance from Berlin's Philharmonie in October 2018. This label is known for its recording quality, and again everything is laid bare; but perhaps Fischer just has the edge over Jurowski in terms of sheer power. In compensation, Jurowski's contrasts  are huge as he emphasises the transparency of Mahler's at times chamber-like scoring:

I Jurowski

Let's move to the two historical recordings we have here. The first is Hans Rosbaud with the South West German Radio Orchestra, Baden-Baden, the orchestra he was associated with from 1948 until his death in 1962. His tenor is the great Ernst Haeffliger. It is magnificent: Rosbaud allowing the lyric passages full space, Haeffliger on top, resonant and strong form. Here's a YouTube of the performance, but do note that it is the new SWR Classic pressing that was used for comparison purposes here. The link for that set is the one at the end of the article (it's to a complete set of symphonies plus Das Lied). The SWR Classic transfer is terrific: like a newly-restored painting. There is a huge amount of detail audible in the orchestra in the new release. Here's the performance of the first movement, anyway, Haeffliger incredibly dramatic, the depiction of the ape howling on the gravestones only equalled by a few (Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and James King on Philips stands out). Please note: the YouTube clip sadly is from an inferior Andromeda transfer, but it is the same performance, so you'll get an idea:

I: Rosbaud
The SWR Classic set cover of the Rosbaud

The second of the historicals is a live radio broadcast from what was then called the New York Philharmonic Symphony - what we now know as the New York Philharmonic, under Artur Rodzinski. The tenor is Charles Kullman, but to me it is Rodzinski who is of the greatest interest. Again, we can get an idea from the YouTube link, but the Immortal Performances edition is the one to go for - it also features a host of extras! Rodzinki's is a gentle take on the score, so that it is the very weight of this sadness that makes his "Trinklied" so effective. Charles Kullmann is perhaps a name known more to US readers than UK or European. He sang at the Kroll Opera (an institution known for its association with Otto Klemperer); later, he moved to the Berlin State Opera. He is perhaps best known for his Walther Meistersinger in 1926 and his Florestan Fidelio at Salzburg in 1925, both with Toscanini. He sang at the Met in New York for 25 seasons, taking on 34 roles. His drunkard is a believable one: there is a palpable sense of exhaustion at "Laß mich betrunken sei!" (Let me be drunk!). Please note that the Rodzinski YouTube is also of the entire performance and we will therefore henceforth be referring to timings only rather than reposting the video -  you can just slide the timer along:

Rodzinksi with Kullman and Thorborg: COMPLETE
The Immortal Performances Cover of the Rodzinski

The chamber version by Reinbert De Leeuw is fascinating, and we'll be quoting from that when it comes to the fourth song. Released on September 18, 2020, it is inspired by the Schoenberg concerts of the early twentieth century in which reductions of new works were performed. The recording is poignant: De Leeuw fervently pressed for a quick recording after a performance at the Festival de Saintes in France, and he died shortly thereafter. Yves Saelens is a fresh, excellent tenor, and it is fascinating to hear what power can be retained in this first movement, particularly in the final, dismissive, gesture.  

Time, then  to introduce the ladies of our Mahlerian adventure. Moving in the same order as above, we find Gerhild Romberger with Fischer, a singer capable of the greatest nuance, something that will hold her in good stead for her "Abschied," that great final movement. Fischer takes the second movement, "Der Einsame in Herbst," slowly, and all credit to Romberger for sustaining the lines:

II Fischer 

But it is Sarah Connolly who is to take the laurels, her contribution  to the Jurowski Lied here, as everywhere in thsi recording, beyond criticism. Jurowski dares to take the opening as quietly as possible; Connolly's great  "Sonne der Liebe, willst du nicht mehr scheinen?" (Sun of Love, will you never shine again?) is delivered with a truly heartfelt cry:

II Jurowski 

Grace Hoffmann, for Rosbaud, is warm-toned and sustains the line well - she has to, given Rosbaud's slow speed. Some might find this too much, though:

II Rosbaud

It is Rodzinski's gentle demeanour that really triumphs in the New York performance, with Thorborg in wonderful form and the conductor keeping things moving just the right amount (see the video above, around 8"35). And as for the De Leeuw, the fragility of texture with his reduced forces is perfect, and Lucile Richardot is the perfectly light voiced soloist, capable of fully - fruitily, even - realising the low notes that Mahler requires of her.

The chinoiserie is marked in the short third movement, "Von der Jugend" (Of Youth). Fischer finds just the right lightness of texture while keeping the Mahlerian feel, with Robert Dean Smith maybe a little Hendentenorisch:

III Fischer

Jurowski's tempo is very deliberate, perhaps too much so as it sounds a little deconstructed; but Dean Smith reins it in more, to good effect:

III Jurowski

Rodzinski invokes birds chattering like no-one else at the opening of this movement; Kullmann is in fine voice (from 17"29 in the video above); while Rosbaud's slow tempo will shock some (all credit to Haeffliger!), as might some of the slippy-slidey string portamentos:

III Rosbaud

De Leeuw's version is magical, unexpected touches of orchestration everywhere (particularly in the piano's contributions), loads of detail, and Saelens easily and naturally despatching the tenor line. At times we could be at an Orientalist afternoon tea dance; then shadows fall. Magnificently thought-provoking.

With the fourth movement, "Von der Schönheit" (Of Beauty), nostalgic reflection takes over in a fairy tale setting. Here the lotus flowers are full of life, ready to be picked by the young girls. The arrival of boys on horseback should be properly disruptive, while the performance should also convey the subtle eroticism of the reaction of the most beautiful of the maidens. Fischer and Romberger  offer a superbly accurate, often beautiful account, but perhaps the boys could ride just that little bit more roughshod:

IV Fischer

Jurowski has the gorgeous voice of Connolly (she really does excel here). There's just an inkling of doubt that Jurowski is pushing it forwards where Connolly would like to give it a little more space (Jurowski is know for swift tempos, and indeed the episode with the boys scampers along, timpani like bullets):

IV Jurowski

Rodzinski (20"42 in the video) with his rustic woodwinds, conjures the perfect atmosphere. There's no disguising the edge to the high violins in any transfer, but there's also no disguising the sheer energy of the boys on horseback.

Here's Rosbaud, gossamer in both winds and strings, an absolute revelation to begin with then feeling just a little pressed when the voice enters; but once singer and conductor get on the same page, there is much to enjoy. Grace Hoffmann actually provides the best second half of this song of all the versions under consideration today, every word clear no matter what Mahler's demands:

IV Rosbaud

This is our opportunity, too, to hear some of that De Leeuw recording, Lucile Richardot absolutely magnetic. The pared-down scoring works wonders here in teh ofurth song, although inevitably the big disruptive moment is tamed somewhat (interestingly almost compensated for by some of the characterful wind playing). There's also the fact that the music gets closest to Ives here, and De Leeuw emphasises the two composers' sense of experimentation (there are definite discernible links between the two composers). In some territories, the whole of the Alpha recording is available on YouTube, but not in the UK as it stands presently, so do enjoy this single movement:

IV De Leeuw

The fifth movement, "Der Trunkene im Frühling" encapsulates a false freedom, a liberation of emotion through substance abuse that ends with the line "Laß mich betrunken sein!" (Let me be drink). But before that angry dismissal come moments of real beauty, when the protagonist remembers what's beautiful in Nature and experiences that archertypal Romantic symbol, the arrival of Spring ("Der Lenz ist da, sei kommen über Nacht"; Spring is here, it came overnight). If anything, though, Fischer's handling of the orchestra is too tame, not taking in the contrasts of emotion, despite Robert Dean Smith's excellence:

V Fischer 

Jurowski is more alive to the music's brightness and contrasts to that, and Robert Dean Smith seems to respond that more (the live provenance doubtless helped, too). Keep on listening until the music darkens, as if a cloud comes over it and the bird arrives; then suddenly it brightens again as the protagonist seems to engage in dialogue with the bird. Characteristically for Jurowski, there is more detail in this performance than any other here today:

V Jurowski

Rodzinski is magnificently robust (27"20 above) but able to expand out when required; in his hands this is a very miniature tone poem in its own right. Kullmann fully gets into the spirit of this song. Rosbaud is a complementary reading, not underlining contrasts quite as much and a little scrappy towards the end, but blessed with Haefliger:

... and so we come to the almighty "Abschied". Half an hour (give or take) that includes a whole load of interior dialogue, of projection outwards into a Death figure and of final illumination of the beyond. Its a journey unlike any other, even in Mahler, and requires a firm hand at the helm, and a great singer. One thinks immediately of Kathleen Ferrier (with Bruno Walter), Dame Janet Baker (with Bernard Haitink) or Jessye Norman (with Colin Davis and also with James Levine).

Iván Fischer's "Abschied" is remarkable in its daring. It emphasises the power of Mahler's writing, from glaring registral spaces to the terror of the almighty funeral march and the immediate numbness thereafter, and thence to the transcendence of the ending:

VI Fischer

Jurowski is hardly less bleak, although again we get the feeling that he is moving things on. But how simply magnificent is Connolly against the solo flute early on, with just the shadow of a bass implying loneliness:

VI Jurowski

There's certainly the feeling of a live performance: as Connolly sings of the moon as a silver barque, one feels she's expanding the music outwards on the spur of the moment. This being Jurowski, metrics are experly calibrated, threes against twos nicely destabilising. The joy, if such a word fits here, lies in the exquisite shadings Connolly brings to the lines throughout, or in the extreme poignancy of "Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten" (It grows cool in the shadows of my spruce).

The Rodzinski (32'14 into the video above) is a matching of two equals, the conductor and Thorborg. Her chilling shout of "Wo bleibst du?" (where are you?) is like no other; and how the two work so well together, Rodzinski creating a heart-stopping "funeral march," Thorborg offering a chilling reposte. The close feels deserved. This ends a unqiue performance that comes with the highest recommendation, especially given the excellence of the Immortal Performances' transfer.

I'm going to flip the order here and not keep the two historical performances together because I want Rosbaud to have the last word. He deserves it. The De Leeuw performance, though, must not be discounted. Richly imaginative in its reimagining and directed by the arranger himself and superbly sung by Lucile Richardot - her voice really is individual and unforgettable - it comes with strong recommendation.

Remember the Rosbaud has the privilege of being on the South West German Radio's own label, SWR Classic. This means the original tapes have been remastered - this is no second-hand attempt. And that allows for the miracles they have created in this set. There is so much detail available in the "Abschied," and the frequency response is superb - we really feel the chthonic double-basses. The sheer presence of Hoffmann's voice is astonshing: the line "Der Welt schläft ein" (The World sleeps) makes a deep emotional impact. Certainly the long orchestral march is swift, but it takes on a cumulative force in being so. A remarkable Lied.

The acid test is how emotionally drained one feels at the end of a performance. Ideally, one should own every recording here. I have returned for my own pleasure to Fischer more than to Jurowski, but to Rodzinski more than both, while the recently arrived Rosbaud I find an absolute revelation. The De Leeuw clearly by its very nature cannot be one's sole Lied, but perhaps it should be everybody's supplementary one.

Immortal Performances Link