‘Das Lied Von Der Erde’ CD Review: Jonas Kaufmann & Jonathan Nott Breathe New Narrative Life Into Mahler’s Glorious Masterpiece

By David Salazar

In the last half century, Gustav Mahler has become arguably the most widely recorded composer in the world of classical music. His music is a deeply personal experience for the truest of Mahlerites, who while open to new interpretations, remain steadfast in their devotion to their all-time favorites.

No two recordings of a Mahler work are anywhere close to similar. There really is no such thing as a given style for Mahler, the way one might expect for Mozart or Bach, for example. While with those composers the idea of portamento (sliding) has been eschewed altogether, Mahler has none of that mainly because the sheer size of his works and specificity with which the conductor/composer marked his scores creates more variables for interpreters to deal with.

I bring this up because Jonas Kaufmann’s recent recording of the famed “Das Lied von der Erde” has created as much anticipation as it has controversy among Mahlerites. A few days ago, I was at the Metropolitan Opera store and the CD was playing over the loudspeakers. I happened upon a conversation between two people who clearly erudite in the composer’s work but were equally outspoken in their disdain for Kaufmann’s decision to sing every single movement in the symphony. In their view, this was nothing more than a publicity stunt by an artist too high on himself. Other reviews have also lambasted the world’s most famous tenor for his decision as well, noting the experiment to be ill-conceived.

From these comments, I concluded that the main question being asked about this recording is – was it a good idea? If it isn’t broken, then why and try to tinker with it?

In my view (and I don’t mean to be presumptuous), that is the wrong question to ask. Instead, I want people to ask – What do we learn from his decision about Mahler’s glorious music?

What Other Interpretations Tell Us

The distinction between using a baritone instead of an alto brings its own insights. The tenor and alto contrast points out the differing worlds they reside in. The male voice winds up sounding rather energized, extroverted and even vain in his bright reflections of the world around him. Meanwhile, the female voice is more reflective, introverted and solemn. The tragedy is apparent, but the heavy counterpoint gives us a balanced world.

A tenor and a baritone pairing comes off a bit more confrontational, the tenor’s brightness immediately countered with a heavier and darker male voice that almost acts in direct response to the previous segments. It thus becomes more of a battle of wills

What the Kaufmann-Nott Approach Tells Us

So what does a single voice leave us with?

Kaufmann’s tenor is rich and expansive, his middle range deep and dark enough to suit the second, fourth and sixth movements of the symphony. But because we hear the same voice from one movement to another, a different pattern emerges. Instead of looking at the set in terms of alternating movements, Mahler’s masterwork is grouped into thirds.

The first two movements thus become a set, the third and fourth become one and ditto for the last two. Together with conductor Jonathan Nott and the Vienna Philharmonic, the paired movements respond and comment on one another. The similarities between the movements, such as the fact that the opening melody of the first and second movement are almost one and the same, become more vividly explored. We are suddenly reminded that that opening movement, despite its heroic qualities actually ends on the text “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod (“Dark is life, dark is death”)” setting the scene for the death of autumn so prominent in the second movement. The third and fourth become a reflection on youth seen by the same person at different moments in his life and the final two are differing responses to death by the same being.

What the First Two Movements Tell Us

And the interpretations themselves by Kaufmann and Nott further emphasize this structuring. Kaufmann’s approach to that opening movement is that of a massive struggle. The orchestra roars throughout the movement, the climaxes epic, and grand, thus forcing the tenor into blasting out the full power of his sound, every ascent into the tenorial stratosphere emphatic. It is the most virile we hear him in the entire set. After this epic battle, the second movement is a reflection on his defeat, the voice delicate in character. Nott is rather steady with his tempi, never stretching any passages, the inflexibility almost a reflection of autumn’s rigid nature. The opening of this passage is particularly haunting, the eighth note runs in the first violins creeping in like an ominous gust of wind, their presence ever-present throughout the movement. Interestingly, the first movement sees a greater freedom with tempo, one feeling that Kaufmann is more in control there.

What the Middle Movements Tell Us

The middle movements, “Von der Jugend” and “Von der Schönheit,” share a narrative drive as the narrator portrays two different scenes. Nott and Kaufmann emphasize their contrasting qualities quite prominently. The third movement is fast in tempo and rather direct in its approach, only really slowing down at the “Auf des Kleinen Teiches stiller (“On the small pond’s still surface”)” passage. In their interpretation, it has a mournful quality emphasized by Kaufmann’s subdued tone and delicate approach to every note. The tempo almost slows to a crawl at one point before blossoming into the original melody.

The fourth movement goes a bit in reverse. The duo stretches the early passages, the tempo seemingly shifting at every section to reflecting the change in the narrator’s subject. And then the middle of the movement, which describes the tumult of handsome boys on their horses, surges with speed and excitement, the orchestra erupting bombastically. Perhaps this is the one section where we hear the flaws to having a tenor singing this section, Kaufmann’s low range lacking clarity in intonation, sounding at times like rhythmic grunts. But once we return to the descriptions of flowers and the sun, his pianissimo colors return us to the world from the opening of the movement, every passage feeling expansive. And yet despite the extremes experienced throughout this movement, it never feels over-baked or indulgent in its approach.

What the Final Two Movements Tell Us

The final set is approached with a hardened edge. From his first enunciations in “Der Truneken im Frühling (The Drunkard of Spring)” Kaufmann exposes a bitter tone, the winds almost laughing at him with their ornamental passages. The ensuing string entrance, with its sighing movements and downward line (which is echoed by a laughing horn), add to this sense of the orchestra making fun of the narrator. Kaufmann’s voice grows in its aggressiveness throughout the piece, while Nott seems to instruct his orchestra to have a ball, the violin’s portamenti become more exaggerated and pronounced as the tenor throws open his voice for the final note of the movement. The narrator is giving one final, but futile battle against death.

The final glorious movement “Der Abschied (The Farewell),” my personal favorite, gives us closure and a sense that the narrator has finally come to terms with his mortality and that he is in fact dying. Gentle is the best word to describe Kaufmann’s voice throughout.  We never hear him rise above a piano vocally, the sound slender, though far from agile. The final “Ewig” repetitions with which the piece fades away grow quieter and quieter, becoming haunting whispers.

Nott is far more reserved with his orchestral weight, giving prominence to the solo winds in early instances and playing up the chamber-like atmosphere of the movement. The result is a sense of a world in which every single element is aware of the forthcoming doom. The major orchestral climaxes coming in powerfully but never feeling like there are fighting against fate, as one often feels with other interpretations. The grand finale climax, a sublime crescendo in the violins that leads right into the melancholic coda, does not build quite prominently, bringing in the voice sooner than one might anticipate.

What the Interpretation As a Whole Told Me

One might immediately conclude that this approach isolates movements of the piece and damages the cohesion of the whole, whereas the through-line of alternating voices makes this impossible. But Nott and Kaufmann’s structuring gives the symphony a distinct three-act narrative structure with a battle against fate in the first two movements, a reflection on a beautiful past in the middle two, and a finally an admission to defeat in the final act of the symphony. It is the narrator’s character development that binds the whole piece together; having two singers doesn’t necessarily give as complex a narrative journey for each artist.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But this is the case with any Mahler recording, especially this symphony. But in this listening to this album, it was clear to me that this was no stunt by a great artist to prove that he could do something no one else before and even perhaps after him can do. It is apparent that Kaufmann and Nott put a lot of thought into this approach, creating, if not the reading we are used to, an insightful approach to one of the greatest pieces of music ever created.


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