Friday, August 20, 2010

Preview: In Mahler's "Song of the Earth" we meet a springtime drunk

The elegant Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger is our first
soloist in Mahler's song "The Drunk in Spring."

by Ken

Bruno Walter's 1960 Columbia recording of Mahler's song symphony Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), the composition that fell between his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies and would have been No. 9 if he hadn't been so superstitious about allotting that fateful number to a symphony, was originally released on three LP sides. Surprisingly quickly, though, it was compressed onto two very well-filled sides, and that was my first recording of Das Lied, whose texts are German adaptations by Hans Bethge (from the collection The Chinese Flute) of Chinese originals.

Even as I was getting to know the piece, it was obvious that the emotional center of gravity was the concluding sixth movement, the half-hour song "The Farewell" ("Der Abschied," which we blundered our way into in our Maureen Forrester remembrance), about equal in length to its five predecessors put together, so that was where I usually headed, and since it was preceded on Side 2 by the last of the tenor songs, that meant I listened just as often to the contrastingly very brief song "The Drunk in Spring" ("Der Trunkene im Frühling"), as sung by the elegant Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger -- a studio replacement, you'll recall, for the English tenor Richard Lewis, who sang in Walter's live New York performances that April but had only months earlier recorded Das Lied with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony for RCA. (We're going to hear some of that performance tomorrow night.)


The alto has the two longest songs (No. 2, "On Beauty," in addition to "The Farewell") and the tenor the two shortest (No. 3, "On Youth," in addition to "The Drunk in Spring"). As I've lived with this music, however, I've found myself gravitating to the more laconic, even engimatic tenor songs.

I thought this week we would listen just to the three tenor songs, and naturally, the way we do things here at Sunday Classics, we're going to approach them backwards, starting with "Der Trunkene im Frühling," and starting with my trusty old Häfliger-Walter-Columbia recording (in which the American mezzo Mildred Miller gives a smashing performance of the alto songs). Then we hear the performance by René Kollo (pictured here) and Leonard Bernstein, from the same concerts -- featuring a glowing performance of the alto songs by Christa Ludwig -- at which Bernstein's video recording was made.

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
v. "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunk in Spring")

[English translation by Deryck Cooke.]

If life is but a dream,
why then toil and fret?
I drink till I can drink no longer,
the whole livelong day!

And when I can drink no longer,
since gullet and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep stupendously!

What do I hear on awakening? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if the spring is here;
I feel as if it were a dream.

The bird twitters, "Yes!
Spring is here -- came overnight!"
In deepest wonder I listen.
The bird sings and laughs.

I feel my glass again,
and drain it to the dregs,
and sing, until the moon shines bright
in the black firmament.

And when I can sing no longer,
then I go back to sleep;
for what does spring matter to me?
Let me be drunk!

Ernst Häfliger, tenor; New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded April 1960

René Kollo, tenor; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded live, May 1972


Logically enough, as we move backwards through the tenor songs of Das Lied, en route to the opening "Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth," tomorrow night we'll hear the third movement, "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth"), and I'll tell you the special personal identification that opened this song up for me -- or perhaps opened me up for this song.

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