June 30, 2011


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Michael Gielen. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Apex. $6.99.

     Mahler’s cantata, Das Lied von der Erde, composed after his Eighth Symphony because the superstitious composer feared composing a Ninth – which he expected to be his last, as it was for Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvořák and Schubert – did not prevent the “curse of No. 9,” since Mahler’s actual Ninth did indeed become the last symphony he finished. But the not-yet-the-Ninth cantata did accomplish a great deal, showing Mahler’s ability to create on a small scale (for him) and to produce a work vastly contrasted to the huge Symphony No. 8 – also a vocal work, but a tremendously different one. Indeed, Das Lied von der Erde gained Mahler some popularity that his symphonies did not, for it is quieter, more inwardly focused and less (to some) bombastic than the symphonies, although it is very forward-looking indeed in its harmonic structure. In some ways, Das Lied von der Erde does sound like a symphony: the first song is akin to a first movement, the second to a slow movement, the three short ones that follow resemble a scherzo with trio, and the huge concluding Der Abschied is a finale worthy of what was to come in Symphony No. 9. In other ways, though, this work has a simplicity and directness that the symphonies lack – and although it is very dark, the flashes of optimism provide opportunities for singers and conductors alike to shine forth despite the inevitability of a downbeat ending.

     These two new releases are both reissues, both at least more-or-less from the same period, and both use the same tenor; but they are quite different in effect and effectiveness. Michael Gielen’s is an oddity: the three movements featuring Siegfried Jerusalem were recorded in 1992, the three with Cornelia Kallisch in 2002. Yet the sound is remarkably even throughout – the engineers deserve high praise for that – and the performance seems thoroughly integrated and, indeed, very well thought out. Jerusalem’s is not an ideal voice for this music, but it is more than satisfactory here, with warmth and understanding and little of the harshness or strain that the singer sometimes exhibits elsewhere. Cornelia Kallisch starts a bit shakily, but she warms up part of the way through Der Einsame im Herbst and really makes Von der Schönheit sound like a scherzo, abetted by Gielen’s fine handling of the song’s rhythms. Jerusalem, for his part, makes the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde heartfelt, if not particularly deep: a little more feeling of despair is in order for the repeated line, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” Still, Jerusalem is effective both here and in the two “scherzo” songs, if a little harsh in Der Trunkene im Frühling. In the huge concluding movement, Kallisch emotes very impressively, and if she becomes a little breathy near the end, the sound actually seems to go well with the exhalations of the music – and the final Ewig sequence subsides gracefully and appropriately. Gielen also does a fine job with the orchestral bridge midway through the finale, between the section based on poetry by Mong-Kao-Jen and the concluding one, based on the work of Wang-Wei. Taken as a whole (despite being recorded in two sections a decade apart), this is a well-structured and involving reading.

     The Daniel Barenboim performance on Apex is a bargain-basement affair – no notes and no texts – and is a live recording, assembled from concerts in April and May 1991. It is at best a (+++) rendition: Barenboim does not seem fully in control of the music, which wanders and seems to get away from him at times. And although this performance is shorter, overall, than Gielen’s, it tends to feel draggier, especially in Der Abschied (which is actually about the same length in both these readings). Waltraud Meier sounds fine throughout the CD, but her singing is not especially interesting and does not seem to plumb the depths of the words or the accompanying music. And Jerusalem is simply not in good voice here. His voice sounds strained from the start and does not improve in the later songs: it is tight and often unfocused, with an unpleasant shrillness much of the time. How much of this is the voice itself and how much the venue or the recording, it is impossible to say. But the fact is that this entire performance never quite gels: the Chicago Symphony plays well, and Barenboim manages occasional elegant balance within the orchestra, but as a whole, the reading meanders and does not build effectively toward its depressing conclusion. Indeed, those seven nearly whispered instances of the word Ewig at the end come across more as an afterthought than as something climactic. There are much better versions of Das Lied von der Erde available, and if you want one featuring Jerusalem, the Gielen is a clear choice over the Barenboim.

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