GUSTAV MAHLER - DAS LIED VON DER ERDE - STUART SKELTON (Tenor) - THOMAS HAMPSON (Baritone) - MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS (Conductor)
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA - SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY SACD - 821936001929 - SFS SFS60019
Maybe it's just me, but doesn't it seem like it was a long wait between the last installment in this prestigious Mahler cycle and this new release from September '08. Well, the old saying "good things come to those who wait" definitely applies to this remarkable recording. In fact, in this case the saying should be "amazing things come to those who wait".
This quasi-symphonic song cycle comprised of 6 songs based on Chinese poetry is one of Mahler's greatest efforts and definitely one of the greatest achievements in music. It's orchestration, full of intricate details and delicate moments, belies it's use of a large orchestra. Mahler's profound and ingenious adaptation of the poems about life and death on earth transcends time and space to create a touching experience for anyone listening. The final song, "Der Abschied" (Farewell), is of an ethereal and mysterious beauty, and heart-wrenching sadness as it expires at the very end.
Mahler indicated on the score, that this work could be performed by either a tenor and contralto, or a tenor and baritone. The famous tenor and contralto recording still remains, of course, the 1952 Bruno Walter version with the unmistakable voice of Kathleen Ferrier, which wrings every drop of emotion out of the last few moments of the final movement. That legendary recording left such an impression, that very few conductors have opted for the tenor and baritone version, fearing that the baritone voice would not be able to convey the same level of tender sadness as would a female voice.
Well, this captivating performance should allay those fears and settle that argument for good. Both Stuart Skelton and Thomas Hampson delve deep within themselves to deliver breathtaking readings of this poetry brought to life by Mahler's music. Their vocal inflections, tonal range, emphasis of key words and notes, even the way they pronounce certain words based on the sentiment within those words, all of that and more is done brilliantly during this live recording. Michael Tilson Thomas meanwhile, not only delivers one of the best orchestral renderings in this recording, but also provides one of the best supporting accompaniments ever given the two main actor/singers of this magical work. As usual, the recorded sound is demonstration class and up to the standards we have come to expect from San Francisco.
There is only one symphony left to complete this enterprising cycle. The awe-inspiring No. 8. If this Das Lied von der Erde is any indication of what is coming next, hold on to your hats and arm yourselves with heaps of patience.