Das Lied von der Erde - Huckle, Spence, Brown
Anglo-German contralto Claudia Huckle, tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Justin Brown present Mahler's autograph piano version of Das Lied von der Erde in this stunning new recording. The recording was a lockdown project, which provided Huckle with a focus for over a year during the pandemic.
"During the spring of 2020, I realised that if I never performed again, my greatest regret would be never having sung Das Lied von der Erde. I have loved this piece since I was a teenager, and have always felt that for a German-speaking contralto like me it would be the biggest and most exciting musical challenge of all. I took Das Lied von der Erde off the shelf, and decided: it's time. That's how this recording was born. I am so pleased to have found the ideal partners for the project in tenor Nicky Spence and conductor/pianist Justin Brown, and to have brought it to fruition.” [Claudia Huckle, contralto]
Like many of Mahler's song collections and cycles, Das Lied von der Erde was conceived in both a piano and orchestral version. Both were intended for the concert hall, but the piano version has remained overlooked and is virtually unknown. Yet there are persuasive advantages: "There is an intimacy in the writing which is intensified in the interplay of two musicians equally foregrounded; the poetry becomes more immediate, and the delicacy of much of the writing achieves a natural transparency.” [Justin Brown, pianist/conductor]
The recording is generously supported by the Gustav Mahler Society UK in partnership with Champs Hill Records.
- Sleeve Notes
In 1907 Mahler received from a friend a recently published volume of poetry called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute) – translations of ancient Chinese poems by Hans Bethge. Mahler was forty-six and at the peak of his career. He had just completed the titanic Eighth Symphony, was revered as a conductor and had for ten years been Director of the Wiener Staatsoper. Fate then struck. Growing resentment against his dictatorial manner forced him to resign from the Opera in March; in May his four-year-old daughter died of diphtheria; and a few days later a doctor diagnosed his own fatal heart disease. He had little over three years to live. Das Lied von der Erde was composed during 1908, very much sub specie mortis. In a letter to Bruno Walter of September 1908, Mahler states that Das Lied von der Erde was the most personal work he had ever composed: „Ich glaube, daß es wohl das Persönlichste ist, was ich bis jetzt gemacht habe.“ And in another letter to the great conductor he confessed that he was ‘thirstier than ever for life.’ It is this dual awareness of the bitterness of mortality and the rapture of being alive that gives Das Lied von der Erde its unique poignancy.
Bethge called his translations Nachdichtungen – in other words, they are paraphrases of the original poems, all of which date from the eighth century, the era of the T’ang dynasty. Of the 83 poems by 38 different poets, Mahler chose seven that best expressed his feelings about life and death (the last two being combined to form the final song); and like many a composer before him, he adapted the poems to suit his own music and actually ended the work with lines of his own:
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde! Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig... ewig...
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue! Forever... forever...
In the same letter to Bruno Walter quoted earlier, Mahler stated that “I myself do not know how to express what the whole thing could be called”. He settled in the end for ‘Das Lied von der Erde – Symphony for tenor and alto voices with orchestra’. However one of the draft scores specifies ‘Orchestra or Piano’, and Mahler did in fact make a complete keyboard score, which is the version we hear on the present recording.
In its far better-known orchestral form, the work calls for a typically large orchestra, with quadruple woodwinds, large brass contingent, two harps and a colourful array of percussion. Yet despite these huge forces, he only rarely uses the full orchestra – mostly in the opening ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’; and throughout Mahler’s music is characterized by refined orchestral textures. There are several occasions when a solo instrument is delicately accompanied by a greatly reduced orchestra; and others when a single department of the orchestra plays, as at the beginning of the third and fifth songs, when we hear the woodwind alone.
In the piano version, which pre-dates the final orchestral score, the titles given to each movement were the ones supplied by Bethge; in the orchestral version, most of the movement titles were altered slightly, while those of the third and fourth songs were replaced entirely, becoming ‘Von der Jugend’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’.
The first song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ attempts to defy grief through alcoholic inebriation, but the recurring refrain (‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!’) is uncompromisingly pessimistic. The slow movement, ‘Die Einsame im Herbst’, depicts the loneliness of the solitary protagonist, as she stands in autumn by the side of a lake, painfully aware of imminent winter and, by extension, death. ‘Der Pavillon aus Porzellan’ is in lighter vein – a delicate Allegretto that reveals a group of young men and women drinking tea, chatting and occasionally writing verse by a summer-house on an island that is connected to the bank by an arching footbridge of jade – all of which is reflected upside- down in the water. The chinoiserie of this scherzo is far more pronounced than in the other movements: Mahler uses the pentatonic scale and suffuses the music with eastern-sounding trills and triangle strokes. ‘Am Ufer’, a gossamer Andante, presents us with a group of young girls, plucking lotus-flowers by the water’s edge, bathed in sunlight. This idyll is interrupted by handsome lads on horseback, one of whom attracts the attention of the most beautiful girl. Her proud bearing is mere pretence: her eyes flash with desire. ‘Der Trinker im Frühling’ shows us the protagonist drowning his sorrows in drink; and when he can drink no more, he staggers to bed. On awakening, he hears a bird singing in the tree and asks it whether spring has arrived. ‘Yes’ comes the reply, at which he fills his glass again and drains it to the dregs: ‘What has spring to do with me!? Let me be drunk!’ ‘Der Abschied’ – a conflation of two poems, one after Mong-Kao-Jen and one after Wang-Wei – is by far the longest and, musically, the jewel in the crown of this wonderful work; and the mood is predominantly sombre, as Mahler composes his farewell to the world he loved so fervently.
Bruno Walter, who gave the first posthumous performance in Munich in 1911, gave this moving description of Mahler’s view of ‘Der Abschied’ in Gustav Mahler (Herbert Reichner Verlag, 1939):
Er übergab mir das Manuskript zum Studium; zum erstenmal lernte ich ein neues Werk nicht durch ihn selbst kennen. Als ich es ihm zurück brachte, fast unfähig, ein Wort darüber zu sprechen, schlug er den Abschied auf und sagte: „Was glauben Sie? Ist das überhaupt zum aushalten? Werden sich die Menschen nicht darnach umbringen?” Dann wies er auf die rhythmischen Schwierigkeiten und fragte scherzend: „Haben Sie eine Ahnung, wie man das dirigieren soll? Ich nicht!”
He handed me the manuscript to study; it was the first time that it was not through him that I became acquainted with a new work. When I returned it to him, almost incapable of uttering a single word, he opened the score at the Abschied and said: ‘What do you think? Can that be endured? Will people not do away with themselves after hearing it?’ Then he drew my attention to the rhythmic difficulties and asked me in jest: ‘Have you any idea of how one is supposed to conduct this? I haven’t!’
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