AOM Logo November 1998

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond.
Jessye Norman, soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor

DGG 439 948-2

Playing Time: 66:35

Anthony Kershaw

Cover Image

The great success of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, brought the composer his fair share of worry. Ever superstitious, Mahler feared his next symphony would, like Beethoven, Dvorák and Bruckner, be his last. He tried to duck fate by dodging chronology and naming his next, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). It was composed in 1908 and called a Symphony with solo voices. Mahler later composed an actual Ninth Symphony and even fragments of a Tenth, but did not live to hear them. So much for tempting fate.

I remember arguing with my father in my youth over the merits of Mahler's music. Being, at that time, a closet Socialist, I loved the angst and confusion of it all. Later, I grew to feel much of Mahler's music overly melodramatic and banal just as my father had suggested - but never Das Lied. The great song-symphony, like his true Ninth, are deeply gratifying works that withstood my test of time.

I was raised on the Otto Klemperer - Philharmonia/Christa Ludwig/Fritz Wunderlich performance (EMI CDC 7 47231 2), still the Everest all others hope to conquer. The problem with most recordings is always the tenor voice, and so it continues on this new Deutsche Gramphone release. It isn't that heldentenor, Siegfried Jerusalem, does not sing the impossible well - he gets the notes without too much barking. Simply, Fritz Wunderlich with Klemperer set the standard impossibly high. He floats heroically while others, including Jerusalem, strain. A shame, as Jerusalem has some lovely thoughts on the text (by Chinese poet, Li Po).

Soprano, Jessye Norman, in suitably gigantic voice, takes the difficulties of technique and interpretation in her considerable stride and produces a wonderful vision of Mahler's magnificent music. She has the power in all registers to create impact when required, and the purity, especially in Der Abschied (The Farewell), to hover serenely above the superb orchestra.

The Berlin Philharmonic under Met maestro James Levine plays beautifully. The orchestral writing, some of Mahler's most difficult, is given a brilliant reading. At times, Levine coaxes chamber-like delicacy and elsewhere, massive sonorities. As is the norm with this band, ensemble and intonation are immaculate. The recording, a live performance at the orchestra's Philharmonie home, is quite dry in quality, representative of the hall's acoustics. A few coughs in the quiet sections are the only giveaways to a live recording. Some listeners will have a problem with producer Volker Straus' placement of the singers in relation to the orchestra. Norman and Jerusalem are somewhat larger than life.

So, a fine performance but not an unreserved recommendation for the simple fact that the superior Klemperer EMI recording is still available. For a change of pace, try Arnold Schoenberg's amazing reduction of Das Lied for chamber orchestra, conducted superbly by Phillipe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi CD HMC 901477, with soprano Birgit Remmert and tenor Hans-Peter Blochwitz.

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