06 Feb 2008

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde

Premiered posthumously, the symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) remains one of his defining works because of its synthesis of song and symphony, two genres he pursued throughout his career.

Composed between 1907-9, Das Lied von der Erde was not performed in the composer’s lifetime, but was given its premiere in November 1911, several months after Mahler’s death in May of that year. While Bruno Walter conducted the premiere in Munich, other performances followed soon afterward, including those led by Mahler’s colleague Willem Mengelberg, as well some partially documented ones with reduced orchestration at Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for the Private Performance of Music) that existed between 1918-21, as indicated in the notes that Kenneth Slowik contributed to the present recording. Yet while Anton Webern is credited with the reduction of Das Lied von der Erde at the Verein, only an annotated score by Schoenberg with some notes toward a reduction the score has survived. Dating from 1921, Schoenberg’s score remains a connection to that earlier time, with present recording based on the completion of the reduction that the composer Rainer Riehn (b. 1941) prepared in 1983 from the fragmentary annotated score that Schoenberg left.

Riehn’s efforts capture the chamber-music style that was characteristic of Schoenberg’s Verein. From the outset the lush sounds of Mahler’s orchestral score give way to thinner textures that present the work in the absolutely essential textures and basic timbres. The transparent lines give a sense of the work that clarifies, if not sharpens, the textures that Mahler used to support his text. As much as the essential musical elements are present, the timbres that Mahler used in this work give way to a small ensemble that consists of a flute (doubling on piccolo); oboe (doubling on English horn); clarinet (E-flat, B-flat, and bass); bassoon; horn, two violins, viola, cello, bass, harmonium (doubling on celesta); piano, and percussion (two players). In capturing the sense of the reductions that Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and their colleagues pursued, Riehn attempted the daunting task of capturing Mahler’s style within a chamber idiom. It is essentially akin to trying to convey the sense of Seurat’s Grand Jatte in miniature, and while the effort can be extended, the result can never be exactly the same as the original effort. Nevertheless, in standing between the two authentic versions by Mahler, that is, his orchestral score and the version for voice and piano, the Schoenberg-Riehn score merits attention for various reasons, including the way it reflects the reception of the work.

Mahler’s score for voice and piano suggests through the idiom more conventional Lieder, and it remains for the imagination of the audience to invoke some of the timbres that the composer brought to the orchestrated version. Yet in both the version with keyboard accompaniment and Riehn’s reduction, it is possible for the audience to concentrate on the vocal parts. While there are a number of highly successful recordings, Mahler’s orchestral score puts demands on singers, who may not always meet the demands of singing with such a full ensemble. The first and fifth songs, for example, can challenge even the most adept tenors because of the tessitura and the amplitude of various passages. Likewise, the lower voice (alto or baritone) must execute a sometimes dense text in the fourth song. With either a piano accompaniment or the Schoenberg-Riehn version, the singers can concentrate on the text and thus convey its meaning readily to the audience.

Thus, John Elwes, who is known for his performances of eighteenth-century opera or nineteenth-century Lieder, meets the challenge of the songs for tenor. From the opening of the first song “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,” Elwes uses his focused tone to convey the text clearly. While the placement of the microphones sometimes captures the singer’s articulations, those details soon fade into the interpretation that Elwes brings to the music. While it is, perhaps, easier to sing with the smaller ensemble, that does not negate the requisite intensity that the work demands. Thus, the increasingly arching phrases of the first song need to build gradually, and Elwes executes that aspect of the music well. His sometimes a piacere presentation of certain lines seems to allow him to bring out the longer lines that are part of this song, in particular, and yet recur in others.

Russell Braun, an operatic baritone who is known both to American and international audiences, is also respected for his work in solo recitals. This combination of venues seems to suite him well for performing Das Lied von der Erde. From a practical viewpoint, his solidly dark lower register is appropriate for the work, while his upper range makes some of the more extended passages seem completely comfortable. Although the part is customarily sung by an alto, Mahler’s score does not specify genders for either the lower or upper vocal parts. Rather than imitate an alto, a baritone succeeds well by approaching Das Lied von der Erde with a full voice, as Braun does well in “Der Einsame im Herbst.” The telling song is the final one, “Der Abschied,”which is in itself as long as the five songs preceding it combined. Any singer approaching this song faces what is essentially an approximately thirty-minute soliloquy which is interspersed with several interludes. Comprised of two texts (found on facing pages of the original edition of Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte), the song involves various twilight images in which the speaker calls to mind a dear friend, who is absent. Yet moving from the absent friend, the speaker reflects on his own journey and the prospect of existence as a series of eternities. Without the trappings of philosophy, the text evokes ideas associated with Schopenhauer, while the music creates a sense of eternity that is possible only in sounds, as the piece ends with unresolved sonorities that create an unforgettable context for the repetitions of “ewig” that conclude the piece. Braun succeeds well in giving engaging voice to this piece, and his interpretation deserves attention for its poignancy.

At times the scoring of “Der Abschied” in this version reminds listeners of its distance from Mahler’s score. Various passages seem close to the chamber-music like sonorities that are already part of Mahler’s score, but sometimes the use of piano shifts the timbre enough to call attention to the difference. Nevertheless, the fine interpretation of “Der Abschied” by Braun and Slowik stands out in this performance of the work. Those interested in Das Lied von der Erde may find some insights in this version of work because of the reduced scoring. At the same time, this version also represents the reduction that was cultivated by Schoenberg and his circle for several important years in the early twentieth century.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI