August 26, 2021


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde; Xiaogang Ye: The Song of the Earth. Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Brian Jagde, tenor; Liping Zhang, soprano; Shenyang, baritone; Shanghai Symphony Orchestra conducted by Long Yu. Deutsche Grammophon. $13.98 (2 CDs).

     One of the most intriguing aspects of this utterly fascinating pairing of interpretations of Tang Dynasty poems from the viewpoint of two different centuries is that both the composers were the same age when they created their pieces: Mahler was 49 when he finished Das Lied von der Erde and Xiaogang Ye was the same age when he produced The Song of the Earth in 2004. There are many, many connections between these works as well as many, many disparities, but surely the different situations of the same-age composers in their respective time periods are worthy of note. Mahler, of course, was to live only one further year, while Xiaogang Ye is still going strong in his mid-60s; but still, the contemplation of thousand-year-old Tang Dynasty poetry in the contexts of two very different centuries, by two composers of the same chronological age, is exceptionally intriguing.

     It is far from the only fascination here. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is a subtle blend of Romantic-era German lied composition with a host of touches of chinoiserie, although the text of the work is twice-removed from the original Mandarin (it got into German by way of French). Mahler’s elegant use of pentatonic scales and inclusion of Chinese percussion elements in the orchestra lend Das Lied von der Erde an Oriental flavor, but it was clearly the opportunity to explore death, memory and the evanescence of earthly life that attracted Mahler to the Tang Dynasty poems – giving him a different angle on those topics from the one he had used in his “Symphony of a Thousand.”

     Hearing the Mahler played by the excellent Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under the highly sensitive direction of Long Yu is in itself a first-rate experience. The tempos here are, in toto, slightly faster than usual in this work, but never noticeably so during any of the individual sections. And the soloists are as good as the orchestra. Brian Jagde, undoubtedly in consultation with Lu, has really thought through the words’ meaning and how best to deliver it – the three very different ways he says Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod in the first song are evidence enough of his understanding of the progress of the narrative and the music. And his rendition of Der Trunkene im Frühling has just the right mixture of obliviousness and hysteria. For her part, Michelle DeYoung – despite being a mezzo-soprano, when Mahler clearly specified an alto for the part – has a rich, warm and thoroughly convincing voice that carries forcefully and elegantly through the entire song cycle (it is worth remembering that the female voice sings about two-thirds of Das Lied von der Erde). The haunting repeats of ewig at the work’s very end, so clear an indication of leave-taking of life as the music descends into silence, cap a performance that is careful, sensitive and emotionally trenchant throughout. Lu’s intermingling of the instruments with the singers is exemplary: notably, it is always hard for the orchestra to avoid swamping the male voice, but Jagde and Lu handle the balance admirably here. And the extended orchestral interlude between the two poems that make up Der Abschied is just one place where Lu’s fine understanding of Mahler comes through very clearly.

     The Mahler performance alone is enough to justify the cost of this two-CD Deutsche Grammophon set, but the inclusion of the world première recording of Xiaogang Ye’s work makes the release a remarkable bargain. Ye trained partially in the West and clearly has no problem incorporating and building upon Mahler’s style, which he acknowledges throughout The Song of the Earth, even though he rarely follows Mahler slavishly (although one brief harmonic sequence in the second song does sound perfectly Mahlerian). Ye uses the original texts of the Tang Dynasty poems, rearranges their sequence a bit, but opens and closes with the same material Mahler chose for the start and finish of Das Lied von der Erde. However, Ye uses different vocal ranges – soprano and baritone – and does not have them alternate: Liping Zhang sings Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6, while Shenyang handles Nos. 4 and 5 (and, intriguingly, this arrangement also gives the female voice about two-thirds of the material). By and large, the use of orchestra and the harmonic world of Ye’s work would not be out of place in Mahler’s time: there is greater dissonance in some sections, and some use of effects beyond what Mahler included, but nothing really outré by the standards of 1909. Shenyang, for example, sings in what sounds like Sprechstimme in No. 5, but even though Mahler did not use that vocal form, it was in use at the time of Das Lied von der Erde and became more common within a few further years.

     One difficulty of understanding just what Ye is doing with the relationship between the poetry and the music is the absence of transliteration. There is an English translation of the verses (and a German one as well), but this is a case where transliteration would have been very helpful, since listeners could then have followed both the sound of the words and their meaning while listening to Ye’s music, thus better understanding the ways in which he emphasizes, expands upon or otherwise comments on the poetry. In the absence of the ability to do this, English speakers cannot know just what words and concepts are being treated to techniques such as vocal glissandi, and it is impossible to know why one portion of the final song (No. 6) sounds as if Zhang is delivering a dramatic “ha-ha-ha” with all the finesse of a Disney villain.

     What is clear in Ye’s work, though, is that he uses much the same instrumentation as Mahler, with notable emphasis on the brass, but deploys elements of some orchestral sections differently, especially the percussion. In fact, while Mahler has the conclusion of his work fade into eternity and into silence, Ye ends his without any words at all – but with an extended percussion-only section that makes the final two minutes of The Song of the Earth sound more Oriental in sensibility than it has anywhere else. There is no sense of any competition between Ye’s 40-minute work and Mahler’s hour-long one – Ye’s is, if anything, a tribute to and extension of Mahler’s, using much of Mahler’s musical language while restoring the verbal elements of Das Lied von der Erde to their original sensibilities, which Mahler, working through translation, could not have known. It has become commonplace nowadays for composers to claim to be multicultural in orientation, to adopt elements from various locations and incorporate them respectfully into new works. Many of those claims are superficial and simply attempts to prove there is no “cultural appropriation” going on. But the Mahler-Ye pairing heard on this release is something different, and much better: it is cross-cultural, allowing Mahler his due for taking translated Tang Dynasty poetry and imbuing it with Romantic-era concerns about permanence and impermanence, and the place of humans in the universe; while allowing Ye to restore the poetry to its original sounds and dimensions, at the same time incorporating into his work the aural spectrum that Mahler offered nearly a century earlier.

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