Jonas Kaufmann sings Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler
WORKS: Das Lied von der Erde
PERFORMER: Jonas Kaufmann (tenor); Vienna Philharmonic/Jonathan Nott
CATALOGUE NO: 88985389832

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This is no vanity project or publicity stunt. Mahler stipulated a tenor for three movements of his song-symphony on texts by Chinese poets, a mezzo-soprano ‘or possibly a baritone’ for the other three. But he was also alert to the artistry of a top singer, and I think he would have approved Jonas Kaufmann’s ground-breaking decision to take the solo part throughout. It’s not much of a stretch for him – a few low notes apart, the lower register suits this baritenor well enough, and the sensitivity to the quieter setting is undoubted in ‘The Lonely Man in Autumn’ – the most successful movement of all here – and the desolate narratives of farewell before the earth’s resurgence sweeps all frozen grief aside.

There, though, lies the only problem. Kaufmann’s heroic top notes at full pelt are the real thing in the two ‘Drinking Songs’. But he can’t relax into generous sensuality, and the constricted tone rather lessens the impact of the great catharses, so surgingly carried by a mezzo like Janet Baker – and for that matter bartione Stephen Gadd on Nott’s other recording made only four months earlier (see below). Timings are very close on both versions, suggesting Kaufmann was musicianly enough to follow his conductor’s lead, with a consistency both of orchestral phrasing and balance (though Sony’s sound-picture is more synthetic than Tudor’s and spotlights the odd instrumental solo). Under any other circumstances, this release would have stood out as the golden newcomer. It’s certainly worth hearing, all the same.

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David Nice