Sunday, February 2, 2014

In our missing "Song of the Earth" song, Mahler's "Lonely One in Autumn" begs for "peace" and "consolation"

Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Israel Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded live, May 18, 20, and 23, 1972

by Ken

In the above audio clip we're near the end of the second song of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Lonely One in Autumn"), where Mahler pulls another of those minor-to-major switcheroos we've talked about. It occurs at 1:25 of our clip. Well, that's the lead-in; the actual moment occurs at about 1:31 -- and it's one of the stupendous moments of this extraordinary song-symphony, the first new project the composer undertook after learning that he was suffering from terminal heart disease.

From the heaven-storming conclusion of the Eighth Symphony to Das Lied represents, one of the most striking sudden changes of course in the work of any creative artist I'm aware of. We actually heard the juxtaposition in the August 2010 post "In the opening vision of Mahler's Song of the Earth: 'Dark is life, is death,'" which focused on the opening tenor song, "The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow," but also included the two later tenor songs.

In this week's preview I said we would be filling in the one song we still haven't covered and then hearing the six movements of Das Lied finally put together. For all sorts of reasons we're not going to manage that today. I'm going to content myself with presenting that final missing link, the second song (and the first for the alto or baritone soloist who alternates with the tenor).


But it's hard to define in a way that covers all three songs of each. They're all constructed of pain. In the case of the tenor songs I'm tempted to say that the pain is raw, but that's not quite right; it's highly processed, or should I say pickled? After all, two of the three are drinking songs, or maybe drunk songs.

The alto, as she sings in this song, is looking for peace; she has "need of consolation." You can easily enough compare the tenor songs as heard in the aforementioned August 2010 post with the alto songs -- the first two as heard this week, and the culminating "Farewell," as heard in five important recordings (Ludwig-Klemperer, Norman-C. Davis, Miller-Walter, Forrester-Reiner, and Fischer-Dieskau-Kletzki) in June 2013. The general assumption is that she gets that consolation, in particular in the final "Farewell." I'm not so sure, but that's for each listener to work out.

Not to worry that we're not hearing the complete Christa Ludwig "Der Einsame im Herbst"; we'll be hearing her in our complete Das Lied, though probably in the great recording with Otto Klemperer rather than the one with Leonard Bernstein. For today, I thought it would be interesting to hear the lighter and brighter voice of Janet Baker alongside Maureen Forrester's now-familiar voluptuous contralto. (I tried to think of a way of not including Forrester, since there are so many other recordings it would have been interesting to sample, but I just couldn't do it.)

Again for the sake of hearing the problematic baritone option we're hearing Bo Skovhus. I thought we might hear Thomas Hampson with Sir Simon Rattle, but when I opened the CD jewel case, which I had remembered to bring home from the office, I realized that the disc must still be sitting in the CD drive there. Not much of a loss, though, and I think the Skovhus-Salonen "Einsame im Herbst" is a little more successful than their "Von der Schönheit," which we heard in the preview.

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
ii. "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Lonely One in Autumn")

Autumn mists drift blue over the lake;
covered with rime stands every blade of grass;
it is as though an artist had strewn dust of jade
over the delicate blossoms.

The sweet fragrance of the flowers has faded;
a cold wind bows down their stems.
Soon will the withered golden petals
of the lotus flowers be floating on the water.

My heart is weary. My little lamp
has burnt out with a splutter: it puts me in mind to sleep.
I come to you, beloved resting place!
Yes, give me peace; I have need of consolation.

I weep much in my loneliness;
the autumn in my heart persists too long.
Sun of love, will you never shine again
to tenderly dry up my bitter tears?
-- English translation by Deryck Cooke

Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Live performance, Feb. 27, 1970

Maureen Forrester, contralto; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Nov. 7 and 9, 1959

Bo Skovhus, baritone; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond. Sony, recorded Mar. 2 and 4, 1998


The whole of Das Lied von der Erde. I haven't entirely worked out how we'll accomplish it, but it'll all be there.

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