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.
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: