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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Arranged by Arnold Schoenberg and Rainer Riehn

  • Das Lied von der Erde
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano
Jorma Silvasti, tenor
Sinfonia Lahti Chamber Ensemble/Osmo Vänskä
BIS CD-681 61:04
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mahler concentrate.

For some reason – destiny, Mahler-in-the-air – I've heard four performances of Das Lied, new to me, in the past month: one live concert, one radio concert, and two recordings. The live concert, on the eve of the Iraqi elections, was scheduled to be led by Klauspeter Seibel, a conductor who hasn't had nearly the career he deserves and who shines in Mahler, but Homeland Security kept him out of the country, as it did the scheduled Quebec mezzo. I doubt these two were specifically targeted, but then again United Statespersons have a hard time in general distinguishing one furriner from another. Probably the only foreign nationals issued visas were members of the Saudi royal family. Anyway, the show went on, and terrifically too, with Ohioan Gerhardt "Where You From, Boy?" Zimmermann on the podium and a fabulous West Coast mezzo named Jane Dutton, both of whom stepped in at the last minute. Dunkel ist das Leben, to quote somebody.

All this is to say, I suppose, that Das Lied – that long, strange hybrid of symphony and song-cycle, considered for so many decades turgid, boring, and basically unlistenable – has become a necessary part of the repertoire. Conductors and soloists had better know it and have it ready if they want to work. As you know, Mahler chose his texts from a collection of German translations of Chinese poetry – Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte, pretty much forgotten these days, but enormously influential in its time. One can argue Bethge's influence on Gottfried Benn and Hermann Hesse, for example. Several prominent composers based works upon Bethge's translations, but Mahler's is the only one to have unmistakably survived.

However, the version on this disc has its origins in the wilderness years of Mahler's critical reception. Early in the previous century, Schoenberg ran a "new music" subscription-concert series for connoisseurs. He and others, including Webern, often made chamber arrangements of symphonic works, since they couldn't afford a full orchestra. Schoenberg's arrangement, left incomplete and then finished in the Nineties by Rainer Riehn (the notes don't say how much Riehn needed to contribute), calls for string quintet (string quartet plus double bass), woodwind quintet, piano, "large harmonium" (realized in this recording with a synthesizer, I believe), celesta, and seven percussion instruments, in addition to the two soloists. I have no idea whether any part of Schoenberg's arrangement was played in his lifetime.

The CD poses two main questions. First, how good is the arrangement? How much Mahler comes through? Mahler orchestrated from a particular, highly individual palette, which becomes an essential part of his symphonic "world." On the other hand, Schoenberg tended to orchestrate from his own palette. For example, his orchestration of the Brahms g-minor piano quartet doesn't sound like Brahms' orchestra, but like Schoenberg's. His string-quartet concerto, after Handel, delightful though it may be, has as much relation to its originals as a pimpmobile to a plough or as Stravinsky's Pulcinella to "Pergolesi." This time out, however, he disciplines himself to reach the goal. Uncannily little of the work's impact dissipates. You don't miss, for example, the brass; the French horn and, occasionally, the oboe – both from the wind quintet – are all Schoenberg apparently needs. The piano and the harmonium fill in the texture normally worked by the massed strings. You don't get all the sonic weight, of course, but Mahler mostly isn't about mass, rather about counterpoint and color. If you look at the score, you see a lot of empty measures in the parts. More often than not, Mahler needs his large orchestra to produce a succession of different small ensembles, rather than mere volume, as in Das Lied's own "Von der Jugend." Schoenberg captures the salient colors of those groups. You feel as if you hear the essence of Mahler's musical thinking. The counterpoint, though not so in-your-face as with the Fifth or the Eighth, nevertheless belongs to the bones of the work. Donald Mitchell in his Gustav Mahler and Michael Kennedy in his Mahler both point out Mahler's extensive use of pentatonic themes, evoking Western ideas of Chinese music. Though it gives a lovely sound, pentatonics (think of music played only on the black keys of the piano) produces stasis. It can't modulate, and thus, in the context of symphonic music, cannot give you the sense of transformation. For this reason, the composer who resorts to it – Mahler or Vaughan Williams, for example – never uses it in its pure form. Mahler finds a way to wed pentatonic themes to his post-Wagnerian chromaticism and achieve the rhetorical movement that he needs. The chromaticism gives the music the necessary shove. The pentatonicism helps lighten the contrapuntal texture.

Second, how good is the performance? The work – unlike, say, Beethoven's Fifth – is by no means sure-fire, even in the hands of professionals. I have squirmed through stodgy accounts indeed of Das Lied. This isn't one of them. But the problems Mahler posed to his executants are by no means trivial. For example, I've never quite understood why any tenor agrees to take on the role, since – no matter how well he does – the mezzo almost always obliterates any memory of him, simply because she sings "Der Abschied," the long, last beautiful word. Neither singer, however, can cruise. I can think of songs as taxing – both technically and interpretively – on the performer, but none more so. The mezzo can make a great impact, but she can also sink the piece, "Der Abschied" lasting roughly half the entire work. The instrumentalists normally can't hide in orchestral Das Lied: the textures are too clear. This becomes of even greater concern in the chamber version.

Jorma Silvasti, the tenor, has a bright, slightly reedy tone, rather than the big heroic voice required for the fanfare opening of the symphonic version. Nevertheless, it does match the reduced forces of the chamber score and settles into a nice fit in the allegretto movements, "Von der Jugend" and "Der Truckene im Frühling." In "Der Einsame im Herbst," mezzo Monica Groop shows that she can communicate more directly than Silvasti, which foretells good things to come in "Der Abschied." She is, indeed, a superior Lieder singer. However, the timbre of her voice, while certainly not ugly, doesn't have that unearthly beauty – think Ferrier or Baker – which utterly enraptures. You don't hear it and weep. It forces you to approach the music in a more conscious, deliberate way. This does not mean that she doesn't have her moments. With the sudden turn toward radiance in "Der Einsame" at the words "Sonne der Liebe" ("sun of love"), she and the ensemble manage to lift and lighten the heart. In "Von der Schönheit," she's requisitely delicate in the "frame" sections and breathless with excitement in the off-to-the-races middle. But, again, "Der Abschied" more or less makes or breaks the account. I'll go against expectations here and plainly state my favorite interpretation: Alfreda Hodgson's in Horenstein's 1972 recording, incidentally my favorite account of the entire work. Baker does an overwhelming "Der Abschied," but the orchestral work under Haitink plods for me. I've never warmed to Ferrier, although I can certainly understand her appeal. In other words, I admire without love. I like Walter and Mildred Miller overall, but Miller doesn't really rise to the occasion as Baker, Hodgson, and Ferrier surely do. Groop achieves a more modest effect, an intimacy without giving you the deeps of sorrow. Her voice, a relatively small one, limits her here. One doesn't get the sense of power in reserve. On the other hand, it suits the orchestration, and she knows enough not to push.

The real stars here, however, are Vänskä, the Sinfonia Lahti chamber players, and of course the arrangement itself. I like it fully as much as – perhaps more than – the Herreweghe recording on Harmonia Mundi, my introduction to the arrangement. They get the clarity, suggest the mass, and run the work's huge emotional range. The ensemble playing is beautifully satisfying all by its lonesome. They are devastating in "Der Abschied," contributing more to the movement's power than even the mezzo. However, above all, this is a team effort. The end of "Der Abschied" – from "Ich wandle nach der Heimat" on ("I turn to my own country"), drills inside you because everything – instruments, singer, interpreter – works in perfect balance. In short, despite the reduced forces and the luckless tenor, I regard this as an account of the first rank.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz