19 Sep 2010

Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Vocally impressive, Michael Tilson Thomas’s new recording of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde merits attention for various reasons.

The first movement “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde” is nuanced, with subtle shifts in tempo and phrasing which allow the structure of the piece to emerge easily. At the same time, Tilson Thomas verges on pauses at some points, and they contribute to the rhythmic tension already present in the recording. Stuart Skelton’s extroverted approach to this and his two other pieces in Das Lied von der Erde shows his voice and technique well in music that fits his reputation as one of the current leading Heldentenors. His lower range is full-bodied and clear, with ringing high notes. The only quibble about this recording is the use of head voice, almost a falsetto, in the final phrase. While the latter works well, the shift in Skelton’s timbre is apparent. Skelton also delivers convincing readings of “Von der Jugend” and “Das Trunkene im Fruhling.” The with latter, Skelton offers a remarkable interpretation, in which the text is always clear without compromising the phrase structure and articulation of the melodic line.

Likewise, Hampson is impressive in this recording, and his interpretation of the final song “Der Abschied” is an intensive one, with full-bodied passion and also heartfelt resignation suggested in his approach to the vocal line. In this performance, Hampson’s approaches to the three songs reveals subtleties through the way he colors his voice. His elegiac, almost Lieder-Abend sound is evident in the first number “Der Einsame im Herbst,” with the second “Von der Schönheit” suggesting a more overt style and, at times, suggesting the style found in Puccini’s Turandot, particularly the almost patter-song middle section. Yet it is in “Der Abschied” that he brings unquestioned finesse to the subtle, almost understate tone he uses at the outset, a timbre that is superseded by the more impassioned approach for the final section. While as quiet as the score requires, the final iterations of “ewig” (forever) are nonetheless insistent through Hampson’s attention to the articulation of that word and its setting in this work.

Tilson Thomas, whose interpretations of Mahler’s works is respected offers a vibrant and engaging performance. His command of the orchestra is impressive in the full execution of the score that never loses intensity, even in the quiet sections in which the vocal line must emerge clearly. Yet this never colors adversely the introductions, codas, and interludes, where the orchestra brings an instrumental intensity to those passages. The balance between the orchestra and Skelton in the opening song is impressive, and Tilson Thomas sustains that interaction throughout the piece. This is further intensified by those subtle shifts in tempo that allow breathing space not just for the performers, but for the audience. A similar effect occurs in “Der Einsame im Herbst,” which the chamber-music passages have welcome shape and distinction. The full-bodied tone-painting that Mahler brings to the score of “Von der Schönheit” rings with an appropriately aggressive sound, that recedes, when the score requires, as if Tilson Thomas were accompanying from the keyboard.

Such command of the ensemble makes the final song, “Der Abschied” memorable for the balance of tension and release that fits into the structure of the music. The voicing of the sonority with which the movement opens is telling for its clarity, and this colors the passages that follow. Likewise, the extended orchestral interlude between the two parts of this piece rings with the intensity Tilson Thomas brought to his interpretation of the second Nachtmusik movement of his recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. When the voice returns for the second half of the song, it is with a sense of arrival, since the instrumental interlude that preceded it has shape and intensity to allow for this almost programmatic sense of motion betwen two distinct points. This dynamism is also present in the final passage, where the voice and its accompaniment interact in the obstinate non-resolution of the vocal line from ^3-^2 (mi-re, without resolving to do) and the unresolved sonority of A-C-E-G with its implicit ambiguity in suggesting both a minor and major chord. This caps Hampson’s masterful interpretation of “Der Abschied” in conveying the full impact of Mahler’s final vocal work.

This recording benefits from the excellent sound characteristic of the San Francisco Symphony’s own label. At times the voices seem quite close to the microphone, but this presence never interferes with the overall balance. With notes by Michael Steinberg, the booklet is a useful supplement that documents the recording with the names of all the performers, along with the full texts of and translations of Das Lied von der Erde.

James L. Zychowicz