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Reviews

20 Apr 2017

Jonas Kaufmann : Mahler Das Lied von der Erde

Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.

Gustav Mahler : Das Lied von der Erde- Jonas Kaufmann, Weiner Philharmoniker, Jonathan Nott (conductor), Sony Classics

A review by Anne Ozorio

 

A single voice in a song symphony created for two voices? Not many artists have the vocal range and heft to sustain 45 minutes at this intensity but Kaufmann achieves a feat that would defy many others. Das Lied von der Erde for one soloist is a remarkable experiment that's probably a one-off, but that alone is reason enough to pay proper attention.

The dichotomy between male and female runs like a powerful undercurrent through most of Mahler's work. It's symbolic. The "Ewig-wiebliche", the Eternal Feminine, represents abstract concepts like creativity, redemption and transcendence, fundamentals of Mahler's artistic metaphysics. Ignore it at the risk of denaturing Mahler! But there can be other ways of creating duality, not tied to gender. Witness the tenor/baritone versions, contrasting singers of the calibre of Schreier and Fischer-Dieskau. For Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler specified tenor and alto/mezzo, the female voice supplying richness and depth in contrast to the anguish of the tenor, terrified of impending death. This is significant, since most of Mahler's song cycles and songs for male voices are written for medium to low voices, and favour baritones. Tenors generally get short-changed, so this is an opportunity to hear how tenors can make the most of Mahler. .

Kaufmann is a Siegmund, not a Siegfried: his timbre has baritonal colourings not all can quite match. Transposing the mezzo songs causes him no great strain. His "Abschied" is finely balanced and expressive, good enough to be heard alone, on its own terms. What this single voice Das Lied sacrifices in dynamic contrast, it compensates by presenting Das Lied von der Erde as a seamless internal monologue. Though Mahler uses two voices, the protagonist is an individual undergoing transformation: Mahler himself, or the listener, always learning more, through each symphony. Thus the idea of a single-voice Das Lied is perfectly valid, emotionally more realistic than tenor/baritone. All-male versions work when both singers are very good, but a single-voice version requires exceptional ability. Quite probably, Kaufmann is the only tenor who could carry off a single-voice Das Lied.

With his background, Kaufmann knows how to create personality without being theatrical, an important distinction, since Das Lied von der Erde is not opera, with defined "roles", but a more personal expression of the human condition. This Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde is unusually intense, since the person involved emphatically does not want to die. The horns call, the orchestra soars, but Kaufmann's defiance rings with a ferocity most tenors might not dare risk. Wunderlich couldn't test this song to the limits the way Kaufmann does. Schreier, on the other hand, infused it with similar courage, outshining the mezzo and orchestra in his recording with Kurt Sanderling. This heroic, outraged defiance is of the essence, for the protagonist is facing nothing less than annihilation. Twenty years ago, when Kaufmann sang Das Lied with Alice Coote in Edinburgh, I hated the way he did this song, as if it was a drinking song. Now Kaufmann has its true measure, spitting out the words fearlessly, taking risks without compromise. No trace whatsoever of Mario Lanza! This reveals a side of Kaufmann which the marketing men pushing commercial product like the Puccini compilation will not understand, but enhances my respect for Kaufmann's integrity as a true artist.

After the outburst of "Das Trinklied", "Der Einsame im Herbst" is reflective, with Kaufmann's characteristic "smoky" timbre evoking a sense of autumnal melancholy. This is usually a mezzo song, so at a few points the highest notes aren't as pure as they might be, though that adds to the sense of vulnerability which makes this song so moving. "Von der Jugen" is a tenor song, though no surprises there. If Kaufmann's voice isn't as beautiful as it often is, he uses it intelligently. The arch of the bridge mirrored in the water is an image of reversal. Nothing remains as it was. In "Von der Schönheit" Mahler undercuts the image of maidens with energetic, fast-flowing figures in the orchestra. This song isn't "feminine". The protagonist is no longer one of the young bucks with prancing horses. He has other, more pressing things on his mind. "Der Trunkene im Frühling" usually marks the exit of the tenor, recapitulating "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde". Though there are tender moments, such as the bird song and its melody, the mood is still not resigned. Kaufmann throws lines forcefully : "Der Lenz ist da!", "Am schrwarzen Firmament!" and, defiant to the end with "Laßt mich betrunken sein!"

Jonathan Nott conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker. creating an atmospheric "Abschied" with muffled tam tam, woodwinds, strings, harps, celeste and mandolin. Excellent playing, as you'd expect from this orchestra. Just as the first five songs form a mini-cycle, the "Abschied" itself unfolds in several stages, each transition marked by an orchestral interlude. The dichotomy now is not merely between voice types but between voice and orchestra: altogether more abstract and elevated. This final song is the real test of this Das Lied and Kaufmann carries it off very well. Now the tone grows ever firmer and more confident. There are mini-transitions even within single lines of text, such as the beautifully articulated "Er sprach....., seine Stimme war umflort...... Du, mein Freund". At last, resolution is reached. The ending is transcendant, textures sublimated and luminous. The protagonist has reached a new plane of consciousness not of this world. Kaufmann's voice takes on richness and serenity. He breathes into the words "Ewig....ewig" so the sound seems almost to glow. Utterly convincing. This isn't the prettiest Das Lied von der Erde on the market, but it wouldn't be proper Mahler if it were. It is much more important that it is psychologically coherent and musically valid. Too often, interesting performances are dismissed out of hand because they are different, but Kaufmann's Das Lied von der Erde definitely repays thoughtful listening.

Anne Ozorio

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