43. Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde
Otto Klemperer with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig
I hope you had a wonderful Holiday season. Welcome back to Building a Classical Music Collection! We have reached #43 in our top 50 classical recordings of all-time, and for this one we return to the music of Gustav Mahler. The recording that makes the top 50 is a recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) recorded in London by EMI records (now Warner) between 1964 and 1966 and performed by mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and tenor Fritz Wunderlich with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer.
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Gustav Mahler (b. 1860 – d. 1911) was certainly one of the greatest composers of his time, and in my own view one of the all-time greatest composers. Born in Bohemia (then part of the Austrian empire) to Jewish parents of humble means, Mahler rose to fame as one of the leading conductors of his time. He became known later, and is known today, mostly for his compositions. The reason his music did not become more well-known sooner may be attributed to the fierce anti-Semitism present in late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, the musical capital of the world at the time.
Many other details about Mahler’s life were discussed in a previous post, back in #15 for the recording of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. If you are interested in reading more about Mahler, here is the link for that post:
Das Lied Von Der Erde
Mahler’s work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is an orchestral song cycle written for two voices and orchestra, and was completed between 1908 and 1909. Mahler specified that the two singers should be a tenor and an alto, or else a tenor and a baritone if an alto is not available. One of Mahler’s greatest advocates and renowned composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein called Das Lied von der Erde Mahler’s “greatest symphony”, as it was originally described as a symphony.
Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde soon after experiencing three painful losses in his life in 1907. Politics and rising antisemitism forced him to resign as director of the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter Maria died from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and Mahler himself was diagnosed with a serious heart defect. The same year, Mahler read verses from Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte, a rewriting of other writers’ translations of Chinese poems. Mahler was moved by the themes in the poems, and admired how earthly beauty was depicted. He chose some of them to set to music, and completed the work in 1909. Mahler was well aware that the ninth symphony proved to be a curse for other composers, as no composer since Beethoven had made it past their ninth symphony. Therefore Mahler chose not to number Das Lied, and later he did complete his Ninth Symphony, but then only portions of a Tenth Symphony before he died.
Das Lied von der Erde was premiered on November 20, 1911 in Munich with Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter conducting, six months after Mahler had died. The song symphony is rather bleak, even for Mahler, with some profound reflections on life and death and the meaning of mortality. The orchestra only plays together on the first, fourth, and sixth songs, giving the other songs more of a chamber music feel. The movements are as follows:
"Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" - the movement continually returns to the refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” which means "Dark is life, is death". Each time the refrain returns it is slightly higher in tone. This is not surprising, given that the original Chinese poem mixes drunken delirium with deep sadness. The tenor sings the song, and it is a demanding part, as Mahler was often fond of pushing musicians and singers to their limit.
"Der Einsame im Herbst" - “The Lonely one in Autumn” is less assertive than the opening movement. The lyrics speak of the dying of the flowers and how beauty is passing, and there is an exhaustion and longing for sleep expressed. Written for alto voice, this movement has more sparse orchestration and is more chamber-like.
"Von der Jugend" - “Of Youth” for tenor is relatively short, and is the only movement that we might say sounds “asian” in its form. It also might be considered a scherzo, or a dance-like movement.
"Von der Schönheit" - “Of Beauty” is soft like a meditation and the image is meant to be "young girls picking lotus flowers at the riverbank." Later young men ride past on horses, as we hear in a louder, brassier passage. The orchestral music we hear after is meant to portray some of the women staring longingly at the handsome men.
"Der Trunkene im Frühling" - “The Drunken Man in Spring” is a scherzo for tenor, and opens with a horn theme. Mahler changes key signatures frequently in this movement, and a solo violin and solo flute are featured prominently to signify the bird the singer describes.
"Der Abschied" - “The Farewell” is written for alto, and is the longest movement. Mahler took the lyrics from two poems on the theme of leaving, himself adding the final lines. We hear a mandolin, woodwinds, and again Mahler changes keys from major to minor several times to depict certain feelings. This is the most familiar and popular movement from the cycle. The persistent theme mentioned by Mahler, and that repeats in the song, is the idea that “"The earth will stay beautiful forever, but man cannot live for even a hundred years." This final movement is notoriously difficult to conduct due to the way it is written, and because Mahler specifically instructed it to be played “without regard for the tempo”.
Mahler was hesitant to make the work public, due to his worry it was too negative. “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” he reportedly said.
The complete lyrics to Das Lied von der Erde can be found here:
As with so many of the recordings featured in the top 50 classical recordings of all-time, Das Lied von der Erde has been fortunate to have many “classic” recordings that have stood the test of time. Choosing one is quite a subjective business, but what raises this one above all the others is three equally great artists on equally fine form recorded by a legendary recording team at EMI. Unlike Mahler’s other symphonies where it is primarily the conductor under the microscope, in Das Lied the conductor shares the spotlight with the two singers. Any weak link in the three performers, and the recording is a no-go.
To start with, Otto Klemperer was a very good conductor of Mahler’s music. His EMI recording of Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection” with the Philharmonia Orchestra, soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and mezzo-soprano Hilde Rossl-Majdan has long been considered a legendary recording. Klemperer’s sober approach to Das Lied von der Erde pays dividends, as he knows just how to push and pull Mahler’s music. While the words “exciting” or “passionate” are rarely mentioned with Klemperer, his steady way of drawing out beautiful phrasing and accentuating the chamber-like quality of Mahler’s writing are exquisite. The Philharmonia during the 1960s was certainly one of the finest orchestras in the world, and the individual instruments are captured marvelously. The woodwinds in particular are extraordinary.
Klemperer was a German Jew, and after being lauded for his conducting in the 1920s and early 1930s in London and Germany, persecution against the Jews began to take a toll on his career. A German newspaper of the time commented harshly on a Klemperer led performance, “his whole outlook ran counter to German thought and feeling.” After being dismissed in 1933, Klemperer and his family fled to Austria, and then to Switzerland. After being appointed the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and living in California from 1935-1939, he later helped found the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He guest conducted the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestras frequently in those years. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940, but his career faltered primarily due to suffering from a brain tumor which left him partially paralyzed. Klemperer also suffered from manic depression, and this would afflict him the rest of his life. After his continuing struggles in the U.S., Klemperer returned to Europe. His best years lay ahead, as he took the reins of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in 1959, and for the next several years it was a divine match. Klemperer and the Philharmonia made many excellent recordings which have remained in the catalog ever since. When attempts were made to disband the Philharmonia, the orchestra named Klemperer president, and they were reconstituted as the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Klemperer was particularly known for his interpretations and recordings of Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart, and Mahler.
If Klemperer’s reading of Das Lied von der Erde is less emotional and more analytical, it is all for the good. Klemperer brings out all the textures, and the recorded sound is remarkably good for its age. The orchestral playing is superb, leaving nothing to chance. The recording was made between 1964 (Philharmonia) and 1966 (New Philharmonia). Klemperer had a reputation for conducting in a deliberate manner (read slow), and it is true the middle movements are on the slow side. However, for me this does not detract in the least but rather allows the singers to bring out more warmth. While we hear Klemperer’s serious and somber side especially in "Der Abschied", he gives louder passages emphasis as well. Klemperer is true to Mahler’s markings and wishes throughout, not wishing to put too much of his own imprint on the score.
On this great Das Lied von der Erde recording are also two vocal superstars of their time, Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. The German tenor Fritz Wunderlich might be considered analogously the “James Dean” of the singing world. His youth and charisma, as well as his stunning vocal talent, made him a superstar on stage and on record at a relatively young age. Shortly before he was to debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1966, Wunderlich tragically died in an accident after falling down a set of stairs at a friend’s hunting lodge. He was only 35. During his short career, Wunderlich was acclaimed for his singing of Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, Bach, and Mahler.
It is rumored that in order to capture Wunderlich’s lyrical and plangent tenor voice, during the sessions for Das Lied von der Erde, EMI artificially amplified his voice so that it could be heard better over the orchestra. Whether this is true or not matters little, because this is as perfect a performance of the tenor part of Das Lied as you are likely to ever hear. Wunderlich has a golden tone, clear and detailed, with every word annunciated. Beauty of tone is prioritized over dramatization, but Wunderlich is so good you don’t feel there is anything lacking. Perhaps some would want slightly more power in Wunderlich’s voice, but that is more than compensated for by his lyricism, characterization and diction. While we are fortunate to have a handful of recordings Wunderlich left for us, we are reminded what a great tragedy it was to lose such a bright star so early on.
Christa Ludwig, mentioned in some other reviews in this series, was simply one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in history. The warmth and fluidity of her voice, along with her insightful characterizations, put her in great demand especially in the 1960s. Ludwig had a rich deep tone, and truly imparts meaning to the words she sings on this recording. I find her pure and clear tone ideal for this work, and her ability to focus the listener’s attention on important details is uncanny. Ludwig is also especially sensitive to Klemperer’s direction, really paying attention to the overall sound picture. Finally, her contribution to “Der Abschied” is unforgettable in my opinion.
As I mentioned, there is stiff competition offered from other recordings of Das Lied von der Erde. A few other alternatives are listed below.
Other recommended recordings
Right behind Klemperer’s account is one led by one of the best Mahlerians of all-time, Rafael Kubelik. Kubelik leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and tenor Waldemar Kmentt on the Audite label. Recorded live in Munich in 1970, this is really an outstanding recording. Janet Baker was THE mezzo in Das Lied, even more distinguished than Ludwig. This is the best of her several recorded versions. While nobody can match Wunderlich in the tenor part, Kmentt does a very fine job here. Kubelik is more dynamic than Klemperer, and the electricity of a live performance adds to the experience.
If you remember, Mahler said that Das Lied von der Erde could also be sung by a tenor and baritone. While personally I prefer the mezzo and tenor to be used, there are some very fine recordings with tenor and baritone. At the top of that category is Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic, tenor James King and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Decca label. Bernstein was definitely one of the greatest Mahler conductors, and Das Lied von der Erde was one of his favorite works. Here you have three artists at the height of their careers recorded in the Sofiensaal in Vienna in 1966. This is a rich and detailed recording, with Bernstein is faster than Klemperer overall. King is more passionate than Wunderlich (though certainly less beautiful), and Fischer-Dieskau is tender and poignant. The contrast between King and Fischer-Dieskau is immediately noticeable and appreciated. Bernstein’s accompaniment is sensitive to each movement’s mood and intent. A great achievement all around.
Perhaps the greatest Mahler conductor ever was Jascha Horenstein, and he never recorded Das Lied von der Erde commercially. Indeed, Horenstein was unjustly neglected on record in general. However, he made a studio recording in Manchester, England with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1972 with soprano Alfreda Hodgson and tenor John Mitchinson that was later broadcast on BBC radio. Recorded a year before his death, this recording is available through various small independent labels for purchase online, and it may be available through streaming services. This is a dark hued performance with Horenstein leading us to places of deep despair and terrifying mood changes. Though Horenstein adopts more expansive speeds than most, this only serves to emphasize the tragic nature of the entire work. He gives great attention to small details, but never loses sight of the larger structure. Hodgson sings with conviction, rapt concentration, and extreme sensitivity. Mitchinson is fairly light, but also effective and moving. The orchestra itself, which had never played the work before, is perhaps the only drawback. Mitchinson himself later would say that the orchestra was in tears at the end due to the closing passages, probably recorded in only one take. This is a recording to treasure, if you can find it.
Finally, there is a live recording from 2011 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yannick Nezet-Seguin with soprano Sarah Connolly and tenor Toby Spence on LPO’s own label. British tenor Toby Spence is a delight, with a voice similar to Wunderlich. Although he is occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, he has an intrinsically beautiful and radiant voice heard to great effect here. Mezzo Sarah Connolly has a big and rich voice, and she provides clear and steady singing. Her singing on “Der Abschied” is a tear-jerker. I am not a great fan of Nezet-Seguin in general, even though he has garnered a lot of attention and has recorded often in recent years. To me, he can be inconsistent and variable on the podium. However, in this case he conducts a wonderful performance.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this installment of the top 50 classical recordings of all-time. There are still several not-to-be-missed recordings coming up, so stay tuned.
Brennan, Gerald. Brewer, Roy. Schrott, Allen. Woodstra, Chris. All Music Guide to Classical Music, The Definitive Guide. All Media Guide. Pp. 692, 1521. Backbeat Books, San Francisco. 2005.
Das Lied von der Erde: A Personal Introduction (1972); documentary by Humphrey Burton starring Leonard Bernstein, René Kollo, Christa Ludwig, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Das Lied von der Erde – Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester (nach Hans Bethges Die chinesische Flöte) von Gustav Mahler, Partitur, [The Song of the Earth. A Symphony for tenor and alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra (after Hans Bethge's The Chinese Flute). By Gustav Mahler. Score. Published by Universal Edition 1912.
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"Fritz Wunderlich (Tenor) – Short Biography". bach-cantatas.com.
Giesen, Hubert (1972). Am Flügel: Hubert Giesen. Meine Lebenserinnerungen. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer. pp. 251–260. ISBN 3-10-025401-5 – via andreas-praefcke.de.
Johnson, Julian (2005). "Mahler and the idea of Nature". In Jeremy Barham (ed.). Perspectives on Gustav Mahler. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-0709-0.
Duggan, Tony. mMoore, Ralph. http://www.musicweb-international.com/mahler/daslied.htm.
New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts. Original broadcast 7 February 1960, "Who is Gustav Mahler?"
Quantangshi, 卷236_23 《效古秋夜長》, by 錢起 (Qian Qi).
SCO Programme Notewww.sco.org.uk Archived 27 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
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