Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

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COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Das Lied von der Erde
PERFORMER: Yvi Jänicke (alto), Christian Elsner (tenor); Stuttgart RSO/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
CATALOGUE NO: C 494 001 B
Mahler would surely have welcomed Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone as the supreme exception to the general rule that a mezzo-soprano or contralto would be preferable for the emotional core of Das Lied von der Erde; there are more heart-stopping gains than drawbacks of vocal colour in his Decca recording with Bernstein. So is another rule – that a singer should resist taking up the baton when vocal powers fade – broken here? Generally speaking, yes. The pulling-back of the tempo can be a hairbreadth too exaggerated, and the horseback romp of the young men in the fourth song shows excessive caution; the radio recording dulls potential orchestral glow. Otherwise, Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation is impressively sculpted, ideally flexible and detailed from the start.

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Both his soloists are singers of lesser experience. Elsner’s sensitively nuanced drinking songs lack the manic heroic-tenor edge needed to push them to the limits. At first Jänicke seems ill-equipped to match the sensitive charting of Stuttgart strings through autumn mists, until it comes to the moments of release. Admittedly her control of phrasing is taxed by the exposed challenges of the great Farewell; but here the magic of live performance wins through. Fischer-Dieskau’s probing of the ultimate heartbreak has as many knife-twists as his sung interpretation, culminating in an epic funeral march complete with big intakes of air; and Jänicke suddenly rises to the supreme pay-off of alto tones in the final catharsis. Hers is not a performance to rank among the greats – Baker, Ferrier, Hodgson or Fischer-Dieskau himself – but its ultimate honesty makes it a worthy companion to the baritone-conductor’s voyage of rediscovery. David Nice