Das Lied von der Erde
is the ultimate Mahler song-cycle; the last written, just two years before his death, and the most ambitious both musically and philosophically.
With words taken from ancient Chinese poetry, Mahler looks over a life soon to end. There are memories of youth and the joys of alcohol, but the closing Abschied is one of the most poignant farewells in music. Running at around half an hour, this final song is heartrending, signing off with Mahler's own prophetic words, "Forever . . . . forever."
The six songs usually feature a tenor partnered by either mezzo-soprano or baritone. There are many fine recordings but few as legendary as Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig under Otto Klemperer in the mid-1960s. Closer to our time, Sky Arts channel has screened an exceptional 2011 concert performance with tenor Jonas Kaufmann and mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter under Claudio Abbado.
The headstrong and ambitious Kaufmann has now claimed the whole song cycle for himself, in a new Sony recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jonathan Nott.
It's a valiant, stamina-testing venture - taken from live concerts last year in Vienna's Musikverein - but does a CD audience want its stamina tested by almost an hour listening to the one tenor?
Although Kaufmann sings with intelligence and style, moulding phrases with the sensitivity required in lieder, one misses the contrasting timbre of a female voice; especially when beauty is praised in the fourth song, through the vision of a young girl on a riverbank picking flowers. Kaufmann evokes the unnecessary musical equivalent of the male gaze.
The tenor may be impressive in the final song, with Nott and his players creating sonorities of extraordinary intimacy, but, once more, it is a woman's voice that I yearn to hear, describing the setting sun bringing shadows and coolness to the valleys.
What: Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde (Sony)
Verdict: Ambitious tenor comes up with a new Mahlerian twist