“Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” said Gustav Mahler, concerned about how the audience of his day would respond to the prevailing darkness looming over the lyrics of Das Lied von der Erde, a collection of translations of classical Chinese poetry culled from Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute (Die chinesische Flöte) set to music.

Mahler’s gallows humor stemmed no doubt from the tragic events of his personal and professional life in 1907: his forced resignation from the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, his eldest daughter Maria’s untimely death, and his being diagnosed with a heart defect that would lead to his death four years later, at the age of 51.

“With one stroke I lost everything I gained: whom I thought I was and how I must learn to walk again like a newborn child,” Mahler wrote to his friend, the conductor Bruno Walter, who led the first public performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Munich towards the end of 1911, six months after the composer’s death, with two American Wagnerians respectively taking the tenor and alto parts:  contralto Sara Cahier and heldentenor William Miller.

Mahler included movements for voice and orchestra in several of his symphonies; he had given great importance to the orchestral accompaniment of his song and song cycles, especially the Songs of the Wayfarer. In Das Lied von der Erde the composer achieved this marriage of the two forms as never before, integrating the vocal parts and the densely orchestrated orchestra into a seamless whole, one in which both share equal importance.

There are nearly fifty recordings of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, starting with the indispensable 1936 Columbia Records release for the Mahler Society with Bruno Walter at the podium and Kerstin Thorborg and Charles Kullman as soloists. Mahler indicated he preferred the use of a male and a female soloist for his Song of the Earth, compromising that if no contralto could be found a baritone would do. Other compromises – less felicitous, one may add – have ranged from having one soloist taking both parts and or reducing the orchestration for chamber ensemble. Giving Mahler’s “greatest symphony” (in Leonard Bernstein’s words) and his “Symphony for Tenor, Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra”) (Mahler’s words) in a version for two singers with piano accompaniment is a futile exercise.

The Sony Classical recording features the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala – a fine singer of the Italian repertoire just now making incursions into the lighter Wagnerian roles – in the tenor part of Mahler’s Song of the Earth. He is joined by the German lyric bass-baritone Christian Gerhaher who takes on the more cantabile second, fourth, and final songs of the hour-long work. While Beczala sings the punishingly high Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery without much effort, he fails to deliver the many colors he could achieve in Of Youth and in The drunken man in Spring. Gerold Huber valiantly plays the complex piano reduction with utmost musicality.

Gerhaher recorded Das Lied von der Erde for Sony Classical in 2009. It would be great to have that recording re-released while the Mahler fan base still yearns for yet another Song of the Earth.

Rafael de Acha © 2023

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