Friday, May 31, 2013

Preview: Colin Davis's surprising triumph in Mahler

Tenor René Kollo sings "On Youth" from Mahler's Song of the Earth, with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in May 1972.
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")

[English translation by Deryck Cooke]

In the middle of the little pool
stands a pavilion of green
and of white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the bridge of jade
over to the pavilion.

In the little house friends are sitting,
beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting;
several are writing verses.

Their silken sleeves slip
backwards, their silken caps
perch gaily on the back of their necks.

On the little pool's still
surface everything appears
fantastically in a mirror image.

Everything is standing on its head
in the pavilion of green
and of white porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge,
upside-down its arch. Friends,
beautifully dressed, are drinking, chatting.

by Ken

In this series devoted to Colin Davis, my general proposition has been that most really good CD performances seem to result from our boy "just doing it" -- hearing basic qualities in music and executing them decisively. This doesn't leave a lot of room for imagination or "creative re-creation," or what in general I would think of as really enlightened or illuminating interpretation.

And then there was his recording of Mahler's Das Lied von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the song-symphony composed based on Hans Bethge's German translations of Chinese poems composed between the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Crucially, it was conceived and composed following the diagnosis of the composer's untreatable heart disease. It would be hard to think of a work that depends more on deep understanding, of empathetic projection of its tiniest musical cells. Not, in other words, material in which we would expect to hear CD at his most persuasive.

And certainly CD's other Mahler recordings -- of the First, Fourth, and Eighth Symphonies, that I know -- are the generally drab affairs one might expect. But the recording of Das Lied . . . .


We first heard "Von der Jugend" in an August 2010 preview post, "Mahler's view of idyllic youths turns them upside-down," in which I told a personal story of how this movement suddenly came alive for me. It has to do with standing outside this perfectly enviable little group of elite youths, and then suddenly having one's whole orientation to them transformed by seeing the reflected image of them in the water upside-down.

Let's listen to CD with Jon Vickers.

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde:
iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")

Jon Vickers, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded March 1981

This is not, in fact, the strongest movement in the CD Das Lied, suffering as it does from CD's apparent general hopelessness working with singers. A lot of conductors would have licked their lips at this pair of soloists. But Vickers's voice in particular was a special instrument that required a certain degree of care in collaboration. It didn't "register" quickly, and might have benefited from the kind of breadth imagined by Otto Klemperer, whose soloist, the great Fritz Wunderlich, had a voice nowhere near as large as Vickers's but one that was capable of filling in the music.

Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Philharmonia/New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1965-66

An ample-size lyric tenor may also be capable of tracing the song more quickly. Here's Waldemar Kmentt (again, with a voice nowhere near the size of Vickers's) in a live performance with Rafael Kubelik.

Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Live performance, Feb. 27, 1970

But otherwise there's something to be said for the casting of a light lyric tenor or even a still-lighter-weight "character" tenor.

Richard Lewis, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded November 1959

Michel Sénéchal, tenor; RAI (Rome) Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. Broadcast performance, Mar. 7, 1959

It does seem clear that Mahler was thinking of a full-blown heroic tenor. The first tenor soloist in Das Lied was the Heldentenor Jacques Urlus. I used to drool over what Vickers might have done with this music, and maybe even did in some performance I haven't heard. Here's about the closest I've encountered to what the song might sound like with this sort of voice.

James King, tenor; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips, recorded September 1975


We hear the sublime opening and closing movements of Das Lied.

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