On CD: Two versions of “Das Lied von der Erde”

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Josef Krips. Deutsche Grammophon. $18.98.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Michael Gielen. Hanssler Classic. $18.99.


(Courtesy of Hänssler Classic)

Truly great performances of a masterwork are, by definition, difficult to come by.  The release of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” in a remastered live recording from June 14, 1964, featuring Fritz Wunderlich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is something to celebrate.

This is a dark, dark reading, using Mahler’s alternative of tenor and baritone rather than the more familiar tenor and contralto (now often a mezzo-soprano).  But this is also a beautifully balanced interpretation that resounds with warmth throughout: Josef Krips was an excellent Mahler conductor who consistently emphasized the composer’s lyricism and had been conducting this symphony/cantata since 1928.

From Wunderlich’s slight pause before the word “tod” (“death”) at each of its occurrences in the first song, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,” to Fischer-Dieskau’s emotional intensity and gorgeous intonation on the seven-times-repeated word “ewig” (“forever”) at the end of the final song, “Der Abschied,” the performance glows with intensity and pulsates with a level of anguished beauty rarely heard in this music and entirely appropriate to it.  Despite some audience coughing and a recording that is not up to modern standards, this is a CD to cherish — one of the highlights of this centennial year of Mahler’s death.

In contrast, the “Das Lied von der Erde” with Cornelia Kallisch and Siegfried Jerusalem seems rather pale. It is a curious hybrid: Jerusalem’s three segments were recorded in 1992, Kallisch’s three in 2002. 

But the sound is remarkably even throughout — the engineers deserve high praise for that — and the performance seems thoroughly integrated and well-thought-out.  Jerusalem’s is not an ideal voice for this music, but it is more than satisfactory here, with warmth and understanding — and little of the harshness or strain that the singer sometimes exhibits elsewhere. 

Kallisch starts a bit shakily, but she warms up part of the way through “Der Einsame im Herbst” and makes “Von der Schonheit” sound like a scherzo, abetted by Michael Gielen’s fine handling of the song’s rhythms.  This is a well-structured and involving reading.  The fact that it does not measure up to the Wunderlich/Fischer-Dieskau/Krips recording only means that it is not a transcendent experience.