Gustav Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Jonathan Nott, conductor
Despite being Jonas Kaufmann’s fan, I have felt for his recording of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde the same ambivalent feelings of the previous album, Dolce vita, released in 2016. It seems that the German tenor has made a habit to offer to his listeners recordings where his vocal means are not at their best, despite his technique allows him to be not out of place.
This time, the main reason of this result consists in the original decision for a tenor to perform all the six pieces that make up the Lied, including the three that Mahler arranged for mezzo or baritone. Kaufmann explains this choice in the booklet notes, starting from a reflection on the need to have «two singers for these six songs. Of course, there are powerful contrasts between the songs and also clear differences in terms of their vocal tessitura. In spite of this, I was attracted by the idea of framing these six songs – despite all their differences – within a single overarching structure extending from the first song to the last. […] Initially, I didn’t trust myself to do so, since the tenor songs on their own are hard enough. But at some point they lost their terrors for me, and from then on I was increasingly tempted by the desire to sing the baritone songs as well».
The recording of the entire Lied sung by a tenor is therefore halfway between an experiment and a hazard and it is the case to recognize Kaufmann’s courage to propose a new solution but, this said, the result is not so exceptional to justify it. Kaufmann’s voice is splendid indeed and its baritonal colour confer the Lied an original sound overall, but the fact is that in Der Einsame im Herbst, Von der Schönheit and above all Der Abschied it is not as brilliant as in the rest of the work. These pieces are indeed sung with elegance, but this deceives only for a while, especially in comparison with Trinklied vom Jammer, Von der Jugend and Der Trunkene im Frühling. It is a matter of fact that the three former arias are prejudiced by a weak low register that sounds lifeless – especially in comparison with certain sparkling high notes that it is usual to hear in the three tenor arias – and this flaw is reflected on their overall performance, which hardly arouses enthusiasm.
It is (not surprisingly) in the three pieces normally assigned to the tenor that Kaufmann can really rival with the best singers of a close or distant past and it is here that the precedent of Fritz Wunderlich, singer who Kaufmann mentions in the booklet, demonstrates to be well absorbed and it is here again that the heroic tenor finally triumphs. The three pieces are sung with marvellous expressiveness and taste and it is somehow paradoxical that Kaufmann, who has sung so many dramatic and serious roles, get one of the best achievements in a joyful piece as Der Trunkene im Frühling.
It is especially when I consider the fine result of the three tenor pieces that I wonder if Kaufmann has not going too far when he decided to record the entire Lied alone. This was an ambitious goal and actually it could have been a milestone in recording history if it had been successful, but unfortunately it is true only for the half that Mahler had entrusted to a tenor voice, so I am compelled to ask myself if it was not better to offer to the audience a “canonical” version with two singers instead of trying to find a «single overarching structure» that is not so stable overall.