100th Anniversary of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” – Sort of….

Shortly after Gustav Mahler died in 1911, his symphony for voices and orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde, was performed for the first time.  To mark the centenary of this momentous occasion, the Orchestra of St. Luke's decided to put on a series of performances.  But since this piece calls for a full symphony orchestra and they are but a chamber orchestra, they had the idea of instead using a chamber ensemble drawn from their larger group, using the arrangement begun by Arnold Schoenberg for performance by the Society for Private Musical Performances that he had organized after World War I.  (Schoenberg didn't finish the project, perhaps realizing the inappropriateness of what he was doing, but it was completed by Rainer Riehn.) The arrangement strips down the sumptuous romantic composition of Mahler to a work for alto, tenor, string quintet (with double bass), a handful of solo winds, keyboards and percussion.  And this makes an odd centenary celebration, since what was premiered in 1911 was, of course, the original orchestral version.

This is not, in my view, the best or even a satisfactory way to hear Mahler's work.  Mahler was among the greatest conductors of his time, a man of the orchestra, and he thought orchestrally.  Das Lied was conceived as a symphony for full orchestra.  Without a full string section, an important aspect of the sound and balance of the piece are missing, and it becomes a different – and lesser – work.  The strain of the tenor to be heard against the exuberant orchestral outbursts, abetted by a full complement of wind instruments in the drinking song movements, is largely obviated, and some of the ethereal beauty if the final movement is definitely sacrificed, especially in the absence of a harp and softly playing massed high strings.  Of course, the notes are largely the same, but the effect is blunted.

That said, the performance I attended on September 9 was an awesome achievement in its own right, defeated in part for me due to where I was sitting, first row of the balcony, where the balances in the small space of the Baryshnikov Center were askew and the lack of decent ventilation and adequate leg-room made the experience uncomfortable.  (Whoever designed the balcony seating deserves an F; it's less comfortable than coach seating in an overstuffed airplane, if that is imaginable.  Lesson learned – don't get a balcony seat in that hall, under any circumstances.) 

The vocal soloists were Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, and Paul Groves, tenor.  George Manahan led the performance.  The members of St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble were not listed in the program, a curious oversight in that they were all essentially soloists for this performance.  I found Manahan's conducting to be quite effective, although the piece ran much longer than I am used to.  I never had a sense of inadequate forward momentum, however.  Groves benefited from not having to try to be heard over Mahler's heavy orchestration, but I thought he should have scaled down his voice accordingly, as I found his rendition a bit too forceful for the setting at times.  He could have relaxed a bit more.  On the other hand, he did sing with accuracy and enthusiasm.  Cano's work was faultless from beginning to end.  But, as I mentioned earlier, my location and the acoustics of this big cube combined to skew balances considerable, as the instrumentalists' efforts dispersed upwards but the singers' focused outward.  (The same problem occurs sitting in high balcony side box seats at Avery Fisher when there is a vocal soloist with orchestra in that hall.  The singers tend to sound distant because their sound is focused outward into the hall, while the instrumentalists sounds are dispersed upwards as well as outwards.)  I suspect this performance sounded much better from the ground-level seats, and would have been even better at a place like Alice Tully or Town Hall. 

Surprisingly, I don't think we're in for lots of performances of Das Lied in New York this year, despite the anniversary.  This is a piece I really didn't care for when I first confronted it as a teen.  I wasn't ready for it.  And my efforts to get to know it were partially defeated by the poor quality of the LP pressing I had – a "London" release of Bernstein's VPO performance with King and Fischer-Dieskau, afflicted by intrusive surface noise – and the ridiculously small print of the Universal Edition pocket score I acquired. 

Years later, by some coincidence I had three different exposures to this piece in the space of a few months due to the confluence of performances by visiting orchestras at Carnegie and a performance at the NY Philharmonic, and I finally fell in love with the piece, abetted by some excellent CD renditions and the comfortably large print of the inexpensive Dover reissue of the first edition of the score.  There are many fine recordings to recommend, but one of the best, in my experience, having acquired 35 of them (!!), is that by Lorin Maazel, with Meier, Heppner, and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra — to my surprise, since I bought it mainly to hear Heppner.  One hopes against hope to find a tenor who can actually project this part without verging on shouting, and one finds the hope fulfilled here, but more to the point I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Maazel's shaping of the work, since my experience as a NY Philharmonic subscriber was not uniformly positive towards his interventionist conducting style.  But, at least on records, I had always found him a much more persuasive opera conductor, and perhaps it is the operatic aspect of this symphony for voices and orchestra that brought out his most effective side.

3 thoughts on “100th Anniversary of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” – Sort of….

  1. I loved Das Lied from 1st hearing – the Solti Chicargo version with Rene Kollo and the wonderful Yvonne Minton. I still have the LP but the CD has proved elusive. Decca issued it for about 5 seconds ! Last time I looked on Amazon a single retailer was offering it for an inflated price. A good candidate then for an ArkivMusic release? I was not aware of the Maazel recording you recommend. I must say I love his Cleveland Orhestra recordings for Decca.I can still remember the impact of the complete Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet, complete Porgy and Bess etc.. Perhaps one day Decca will give us a complete edition these recordings. I would love to have their Brahms cycle, Franck symphony and many more

  2. to Alan Masters: that 1973 Solti recording has been re-released by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on a 2-volume CD of the best of Yvonne Minton. Go to http://shop.abc.net.au (nb no www), and it’s there as ABC 470 241-2: Essential Recordings, Yvonne Minton for $A40 plus postage. Among other things, there are also 8 of Mahler’s songs and a delicious trio of her with Regine Crespin and Helen Donath singing the closing scene of Der Rosenkavalier. Personally I still like Bruno Walter’s version with the NY Phil.

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