September 03, 2020


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Dean Smith, tenor; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Danaë Vlasse: Poème—Songs of Life, Love and Loss. Hila Plitmann and Sangeeta Kaur, sopranos; Robert Thies and Danaë Vlasse, piano; John Walz, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     A mismatch of vocal quality undermines what is otherwise a very fine and very deeply felt performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski. Tenor Robert Dean Smith is simply overmatched by the music, striving to convey the depth of emotional power that Mahler brought to this score but in so doing straining his vocal equipment to and almost past the breaking point. In particular, the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, which sets the tone and some of the style for the entire work, sounds almost screechy rather than world-weary and intense, the repeated line Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod coming across as a throwaway rather than the emotional heart of this song and, by extension, of the work as a whole. Smith’s two later appearances are better, with Von der Jugend, the work’s shortest movement, having a nice lilt to it; but although Der Trunkene im Frühling shows better vocal control than the opening movement, here too the emotive power of the material is somewhat vitiated by Smith’s difficulties in simply delivering his lines and not being swamped by the orchestra. Some of that overpowering may be blamed on Jurowski, who certainly gives no quarter to his soloists; but Jurowski’s sensitive handling of quieter passages shows that he has carefully thought through Das Lied von der Erde and has good reason to force maximum intensity from the voices. And Dame Sarah Connolly, for her part, shows that she can handle the approach that Jurowski wants. Each of her three songs is longer than the Smith ones that they follow: this whole cantata/symphony/song cycle leans heavily on the second voice (Mahler specified an alto, but the role is often sung by a strong mezzo-soprano; and Mahler alternatively accepted use of a baritone). Connolly has a vocal tone at once pure and strong, plus the ability to convey the emotional abysses that Mahler explores in this work (he wondered, with typical Mahlerian and Romantic overstatement, whether the piece as a whole would lead listeners to commit suicide). Der Einsame im Herbst strikes the right tone of near-depressive melancholy, while Von der Schönheit, the most upbeat and brightest of the six movements of Das Lied von der Erde, presents just the right contrast to the mood of all that has come before. But what makes or breaks any performance of this more-than-hour-long work is its final Der Abschied, which is close to the length of the five other movements put together. Here a blend of delicacy and weariness is an absolute necessity, while sensitivity to the parallel but different thoughts and feelings conveyed by the two poems that make up the movement – separated by an extended and tremendously emotive orchestral section – is a requirement for effective presentation. Connolly handles all of Der Abschied with warmth, beauty and a feeling of resignation that paves the way for a final passage, with the seven-times-repeated word ewig (“forever”), in which Mahler pulls listeners more deeply into the music and into themselves than had any composer before. The delicacy of Jurowski’s accompaniment here, and in the instrumental separation between the two poems, is absolutely first-rate – had the whole performance been at this level, it would have been one of the very best of all recordings. Perhaps Smith was simply having an off day when this live recording was made in October 2018 – certainly his voice has elsewhere been far stronger and more convincing than it is here. But the fact is that his contribution is just not up to that of Connolly, Jurowski, or the always excellent Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. An added irritation of this PentaTone release is the omission – obviously a mistake, and a well-nigh unconscionable one – of the words to the final part of Der Abschied: the booklet gives the first poem of the last movement but not the second. Unfortunately, that sloppiness by a usually careful company reflects, in its own way, the manner in which Smith’s voice, which is elsewhere quite fine, here pulls down the quality of the entire performance.

     No contemporary composer has ever come close to the emotional depth and complexity communicated by Mahler in Das Lied von der Erde, but it is not for want of trying. The seven songs by Danaë Vlasse on a new MSR Classics release are certainly intended to plumb emotional depths, and to some extent, they do so successfully. Vlasse writes poetry, composes music and plays piano; Mahler wrote or rewrote the words to many songs that he set as composer, and was a renowned conductor. So there is a certain blend of wordsmith, musical creator and musical presenter in both these artists. But Vlasse seems a touch uncertain as to which of her roles should be preeminent. She appears as solo pianist in two works inspired by poetry but not including words: Piano Nocturne No. 4, “Pour Nelson,” inspired by a sentimental poem by Eugene Field (1850-1895); and Piano Fantasie No. 2, “Schwanengesang,” whose title inevitably recalls Schubert but whose immediate inspiration is Vlasse’s own rather overly complex and evocative poem of the same name (sample line: “the fragrance of a water lily’s fresh palette of nascent pastels”). The piano pieces are emotional but not especially distinctive in the way they express the emotions they evoke. Vlasse is much given to complex poetic imagery that requires reader attentiveness and, for that very reason, does not work particularly well in the immediacy of song lyrics. This is clear in her settings of her own poems, including Barbara and Rêverie “La Lune.” Interestingly, when she chooses to set simpler poetry than her own, Vlasse is more successful. Demain, dès l’Aube, with words by Victor Hugo, is a poem of straightforward images that captures the deepest emotions possible: it is about Hugo’s own journey to lay flowers on his daughter’s grave. The simplicity – but depth – of the underlying emotion calls out Vlasse’s best setting on this CD. The performance of this song, and of all the others, is very fine, with Hila Plitmann, a strong advocate of contemporary vocal music, lending her interpretative skill as well as her vocal flexibility to all the material. All the piano accompaniments by Robert Thies are handled sensitively and with understanding. In two songs, Un Lendemain and Sérénade de Verlaine, Plitmann is joined by a second soprano, Sangeeta Kaur, whose voice complements Plitmann’s well; in the latter of the two-soprano songs, there is also a telling part for cellist John Walz, who underlines and emphasizes a key moment of the music. Vlasse seems constantly striving to bring listeners into the emotional depths where she herself resides in her poetry and on which she draws as a pianist. But as her setting of Hugo shows, she is at her strongest and most involving when she does not try quite so hard to convince the audience of just how strongly felt her emotions are and just how creatively she is able to express them in words.

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