Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (CD review)

Jonas Kaufmann; Jonathan Nott, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88985389832.

When Mahler completed Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") in 1909, he intended it for two voices--tenor and alto--and orchestra, the singers alternating the solo parts in the work's six sections. He also suggested that if an alto were unavailable, one could substitute a baritone. He did not, however, intend for one singer alone to take both parts, as Jonas Kaufmann does here.

So, why is Kaufmann singing both parts? Probably because if you're the most-popular operatic singer in the world, you can.

No harm done. If you enjoy Mr. Kaufmann's voice, as his legion of fans do, you get a double helping of it. And he has enough vocal range to accommodate both parts. Maybe in his next recording he'll do all the voices, including the chorus, of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand."

Anyway, I would venture that every classical music buff knows why Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) titled what would have been his ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Yes, he was superstitious. He knew that no major composer since Beethoven had written past a ninth symphony, so he figured he would get away with it by simply not calling it a Ninth Symphony. He would shortly go on to write an actual numbered Symphony No. 9, anyway, and it would, indeed, be his last completed work. Kind of eerie, when you think of it.

A little history: By the early twentieth century Mahler found himself beset by tragedy. He lost his post at the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter died, and his doctor diagnosed him with an incurable heart problem. It was about this time that he read Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte, a book of Chinese poetry translated into German. The composer fell in love with the idea of the transient quality of earthly beauty presented in the verses and decided to set some of the poems to music as Das Lied von der Erde. The English translations of the six sections are "The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow," The Solitary One in Autumn," "Youth," "Beauty," "The Drunkard in Spring," and "The Farewell."

Certainly, one cannot grumble about the caliber of forces involved in the present recording. Jonathan Nott is a world-class conductor, the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the world's finest orchestras, and among the general public Jonas Kaufmann is possibly the most recognizable name in the operatic field.

Jonas Kaufmann
What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, really. The production is first-class, with a good recording, fabulous orchestral playing, and decent work from Kaufmann and Nott. The question, nevertheless, is just why anybody other than a devoted Kaufmann fan or a Mahler completist should buy the recording. Here, things get a little dicey, considering the number of excellent recordings already available, many of them more imaginative, more beautiful, more interpretatively individual than this rather straightforward one from Kaufmann and Nott. Consider, for example, the stereo recordings from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips, Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic on Sony (Walter had conducted the work's premiere way back in 1911), and Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA, among many other distinctive renditions.

By comparison with these others, Kaufmann and Nott seem more than a tad undistinguished. Again, nothing seriously bad; just not overwhelmingly great. Kaufmann says in a booklet note that the mid-Sixties recording by Klemperer, Fritz Wunderlich, and Christa Ludwig inspired him to want to sing the tenor part in the first place. His reasons for wanting to sing both parts are a little less clear. Since I had the Klemperer recording on the shelf, I took it down for comparison purposes.

Two things in the comparison became clear almost at once. First, there's the contrast between the singing of the two parts. Wunderlich and Ludwig make a wonderful complementary duo in their separate parts, whereas the distinctions between Kaufmann's voice in the same sections don't seem as pronounced. Second, Wunderlich's voice is smoother and more mellifluous than Kaufmann's, whose voice is very slightly huskier. These differences don't make one performance better than the other, however, just different. Individual preference will decide which performance a person would rather listen to. For me, it was Wunderlich and Ludwig.

Moving on. It seems to my ear that Kaufmann does best in his natural tenor range. The baritone vocals appear more mundane, the voice a bit less flexible and less expressive. In any case, he brings an appropriate joy and vigor to the "Drinking," "Youth," and "Drunkard" segments and does at least passably well in the lower registers of the "Solitary," "Beauty," and "Farewell" movements.

In all, this is an agreeable entry in the field. I still wonder, though, how much we actually need it.

Producer Christopher Alder and engineer Philip Krause made the recording at the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein in June 2016. The sound they obtained appears nicely balanced, the soloists well placed, the stereo spread wide but not excessively so. Detailing is more than adequate, with a modicum of warmth and a highly attractive ambient bloom. Highs are a tad shrill at times, but it is not serious and many playback systems might not even reveal it. It's fairly natural, enjoyable sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa