Das Lied von der Erde
Christa Ludwig, contralto, Fritz Wunderlich, tenor
New Philharmonia & Philharmonia Orchestra
Otto Klemperer, conductor
EMI, 1964, 1998
This is a historic recording of Das Lied von der Erde, with the voices of Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich and the direction of Otto Klemperer.
Das Lied von der Erde was conceived by Gustav Mahler as a symphony of Lieder to be performed by tenor and alto or, if the latter is not available, baritone (use established after Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording). The composition was undertaken in painful years for Mahler, who in 1907 had resigned from the Vienna State Opera because of political intrigues and the growing anti-Semitism and lost his young daughter Maria.
The idea for the composition of the symphony was provided by the publication of the collection Die chinesische Flöte (1908), compiled by Hans Bethge and dedicated to the ancient Chinese poetry translated into German (the curator himself declared to have used previous translations). Mahler was very impressed by the vision of earthly beauty expressed in these verses, especially those written under the T’ang dynasty, and chose seven of the lyrics for his Das Lied von der Erde, written in 1909: four of the compositions (Das vom Jammer der Erde Trinklied, Von der Jugend, Von der Schönheit and Der Trunkene im Frühling) derive from Li Bai’s poems, Der Einsame im Herbst was inspired by poem of Quian Qi, while Der Abschied combines the poems of Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, with additions of the same Mahler. The cycle refers to everything existing on earth and ends with the resignation of man to his unhappiness.
Mahler died six months before the first performance, which took place on November 20, 1911 in the Tonhalle in Monaco with Sara Cahier and William Miller as singers and Bruno Walter as director.
The assertion that this recording with Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich is still among the best or even the best of all is undoubtedly justified. As for Ludwig, she realizes a real masterpiece here. I think the reason why her performance has remained in history is not so much in the inherent capabilities of her singing (even if these are outstanding), as in the importance she gives to the text, of which is possible to understand every nuance. When listening to Ludwig, it is easier to imagine to attend to an interpretative reading rather than a musical performance. This is due primarily to the fact that, differently from the tenor, who has a wider range of feelings to express, the alto is much more limited and has a more composed, almost narrative part. Ludwig’s approach is therefore clever and measured.
As for Fritz Wunderlich, he has the liveliest part, to which the natural shine of his voice helps to give brightness. The tenor is less subtle of the alto in expression, but his interpretation reaches the heroism in Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde or is able to convey the youthful light-heatedness of Von der Jugend. His feelings are the most joyous ones and he succeeds to express them with great efficacy.
At last, Otto Klemperer’s direction is well placed between the two singers. The conductor stresses the orchestral colours to reproduce the sounds of nature as most realistic as possible and it is very impressive because, while he does not fail to stress the joyful moments (as in Von der Jugend and Von der Schonheit), is also capable of expressing the resignation to unhappiness without any embellishment, to the point that sometimes his performance really shows the “expressionless” that Mahler wanted.