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Gustav Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde

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Artist: Gustav Mahler

Album: Das Lied von der Erde

Label: Hänssler

Review date: Sep. 6, 2011

There is no one who conducts Mahler quite like Michael Gielen. His interpretations encapsulate the contradictions and early 20th century imponderables at the heart of Mahler’s music. His traversal of the symphonies is second to none, and now, in the centenary anniversary of Mahler’s death, we are given his stunning interpretation of this late Mahler masterpiece.

To say that Song of the Earth is a difficult score to conduct is an understatement. Part symphony, part song-cycle, and composed in the post-Wagnerian ferment of 1908-09, it’s a colorful view of Ancient Chinese poetry through the eyes of a nostalgic but reluctantly forward-looking and open-minded Romantic. The texts of the six movements depict tragedy, yearning and ultimately tranquil acceptance, perfect foils for Mahler’s complex and constantly morphing compositional style. The work’s scope is vast, and in the finest performances, each vocal and orchestral change is executed while the almost operatic sweep and forward motion is maintained throughout.

Gielen has opted to employ an alto and tenor (Mahler’s score allows for either alto or baritone); Cornelia Callisch, a frequent Gielen collaborator, handles the even numbered movements, while Siegfried Jerusulem takes on the rest. Both voices are suitably dark but also quite flexible. In fact, Jerusalem’s voice is as good as I’ve heard it, especially in the opening “Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery.” He’s heroic and mature by turn, in direct contrast to someone like Fritz Wunderlich, whose revered performance for Otto Klemperer (EMI) has always struck me as one-dimensional. When Jerusalem sings, "The heavens are forever blue and the earth will stand firm for a long time and bloom in spring …” his voice lightens as the orchestral texture becomes thinner and glassier. Contrast his delivery of the following lines to experience the full range of expression at his command: “But you, how long will you live then? Not a hundred years are you allowed to enjoy.”

Callisch operates similarly, and it is her task to bring unity and diversity to “The Farewell,” the massive half-hour finale. If she strains at climactic moments, her delivery of the most poignant lines of anticipated leave-taking: "O beauty! O eternal love - eternal, love-intoxicated world!” could not be more heartfelt. She does not possess the gorgeous tone of Dame Janet Baker on her live recording with Raphael Kubelik (Audite), but no one does. Both singers capture admirably the dynamic and emotive nuances of their respective roles.

And then, there is the orchestral writing. Gielen’s conducting is the reason this version should be experienced by any Mahler enthusiast. I have never heard the romantic and the modern juxtaposed so brilliantly, by any conductor, as happens here. As in his readings of the symphonies, Gielen strikes the perfect balance between freedom and rigor, exposing rivers of timbral and motivic detail along the way. The cycle’s opening is bold, the forceful repeated figurations prefiguring the ghostly ape’s laughter later in the movement. His take on “The Drunkard in Spring" emphasizes the ironically jaunty birdsong to which the poet wakes, temporarily sober. Conversely, he renders the faux-Chinese opening of “The Farewell” nearly meterless in support of the beautiful oboe line. And nothing prepares for the cycle’s radiant conclusion, fading to silence on long floating orchestral sustains. Each celesta and harp tone, anticipating the pointillisms of the Second Viennese School, are imbued with light as the alto intones:

    The dear earth everywhere
    blooms in spring and grows green
    afresh! Everywhere and eternally,
    distant places have blue skies!
    Eternally... eternally...

The Hänssler engineers have worked miracles, especially as the alto and baritone songs were recorded 10 years apart. There is no apparent disparity in environment or microphone placement, and each orchestral color and vocal balance is superbly maintained. It is a fitting conclusion to one of the finest Mahler symphony cycles of modern times.

By Marc Medwin

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