Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde - Kožená, Skelton (CD)

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Magdalena Kožená, Stuart Skelton, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle

Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, this performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was recorded at concerts in Munich's Herkulessaal on January 25 and 26, 2018, and features Magdalena Kožená and Stuart Skelton. The work is subtitled 'A symphony for tenor, alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra'. It examines the border between two different genres: the Lied, in its extended form as a song cycle, and the symphony. The entire work is spanned by a taut arc, culminating – in accordance with the principle of intensification – in a huge final movement lasting as long as all the others together, and entitled Der Abschied (The Farewell). Here, Mahler is continuing the genre of the 'Finale Symphony', and the brightening of C minor to C major is even reminiscent of his usual apotheoses. In this symphony, as in his others, Mahler wanted to 'create a world using all existing technical means'.

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Rattle's Mahler is vocally and orchestrally splendid.



This is a colourful, terrific sounding recording of Mahler's great symphonic song cycle.

The work consists of six songs taken from Chinese poetry; the last, 'Der Abschied' (The Farewell) for the mezzo soloist being as long as the first five put together. Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is among the last works Mahler wrote; he never heard it performed. Bruno Walter conducted the posthumous premiere in Munich in 1911. Two of the three songs for tenor tend to be outward and declamatory - quite wild, at times - whereas the mezzo's songs, particularly the final one, form the emotional heart of the work. There have been many distinguished recordings of this masterpiece, including three conducted by Walter. The most loved if not the best of these features the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Other great mezzos who have recorded the work include Janet Baker, Yvonne Minton and Christa Ludwig (and some baritones, notably Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau).

The tenor part is tricky. While his first and third songs need the heft of a Wagnerian heldentenor to rise above the orchestral forces, the middle song 'Von der Jugend' (Of Youth) requires a light touch. The top recommendation by far is still Fritz Wunderlich (with Ludwig, and Otto Klemperer conducting), who was a lyric tenor with a large, flexible, tonally beautiful voice. The Australian Stuart Skelton does not match Wunderlich (who could?) but his ringing top notes proclaim him as the real thing. Unlike other heldentenors who come to grief in the central song, such as Jon Vickers, Skelton scales his voice back and manages it smoothly. I still have the feeling he does not record particularly well, and is more impressive in the flesh. (That is a personal observation; others may disagree.) One tenor who does have the equipment and the range is Jonas Kaufmann, but in his Sony recording he also sings the mezzo songs. For all Kaufmann's artistry, something essential is lost.

Magdalena Kožená, alias Lady Rattle, is a singer I admire. She sings gorgeously with great care and colour, and Rattle does some of his finest work in her final song. She is strong in the fast, low-lying central section of 'Von der Schönheit' (Of Beauty), where her acting experience tells. I don't feel she taps into the inward quality of the final song as fully as the artists I mention above, or Brigitte Fassbaender (who recorded the work with Carlo Maria Giulini), yet Kožená's performance is still quite lovely. Despite fierce competition, you can't go wrong with this disc.