Limelight, April 7, 2017
by Clive Paget
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Jonas Kaufmann, Vienna PO)
Symphony for one: Mahler’s song cycle gets the full Kaufmann treatment.
When Gustav Mahler composed his great orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde in 1909, he almost certainly knew he hadn’t long to live. Avoiding the dreaded ‘curse of the ninth’, he labelled it “Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor und eine Alt (oder Bariton) Stimme und Orchester”, thus sanctioning the use of two male voices, rather than the traditional male female coupling most commonly deployed. Rejected by the authoritative Bruno Walther as an inadequate solution, it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who began to popularise casting a baritone in the work, but until now no one singer has attempted the full six songs.

Jonas Kaufmann has had some pretty scathing reviews for his Herculean attempt, most of them smacking of closed-minded, pre-determined opposition to the concept by self-styled Mahler ‘experts’. That’s a pity, as his beautifully recorded version taken from live performances at Vienna’s Musikverein has a great deal to offer, not least of which are Kaufmann’s textual insights, and the revelatory qualities of Jonathan Nott’s interrogation of Mahler’s orchestrations.

“Of course, there are powerful contrasts between the songs and also clear differences in terms of their vocal tessitura,” says Kaufmann. “In spite of this, I was attracted by the idea of framing these six songs – despite all their differences – within a single overarching structure extending from the first song to the last.” OK, so it’s an admitted experiment, but Kaufmann’s uniquely ‘dark’ tenor ensures sufficient timbrel contrast between the high, strenuous ‘tenor’ songs with their bitter focus on drinking and the shallowness of life, and the lyrical ‘alto’ songs, which spin their autumnal tales of love and loss.

Yes, vocally, Kaufmann is no Wunderlich, able to fly easy and high above the crowd, but who is? The opening Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow is effortful, as it should be, but Kaufmann still manages to do more with the text than, say, the more obviously heroic James King, and he’s head and shoulders above the likes of Kollo or Patzak, for all the latter’s pungent characterisations.

It’s the alto songs, however, that people will listen to most sceptically, and it’s here that Kaufmann’s special baritonal qualities come into play. With the lines lying in the relatively effortless part of the voice (and with the exception of a couple of awkward low notes), Kaufmann is able to caress and float phrases at will, and enter into the composer’s more melancholy reflections at his leisure. Nott plays his part too, offering a ‘what Mahler wrote’ interpretation, free from over-emoting. You might miss some of the swing of a Walther or a Bernstein in the bravura sections, but the instrumental textures he reveals in the second, fourth and final movements genuinely ravish the ear.

An intriguing journey then, and in its own way uniquely cohesive. As such, it deserves repeated listening, especially for Kaufmann and Nott’s hypnotic, valedictory rendition of the final Abschied.

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