Whereas recordings of baritones in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde used to be very much the exception, they now seem to be appearing every bit as frequently as those with mezzo. Inevitably, it's the lieder specialists that crop up and after Michael Tilson Thomas's recording with Thomas Hampson released on the San Francisco Symphony's own label about a year ago – that baritone's second of the work – it's Christian Gerhaher, one of the finest song-singers there is, who features on this new disc from Sony. He receives extremely idiomatic accompaniment from the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal – not, by all accounts, a band one readily associates with Mahler – under their Music Director since 2006, Kent Nagano. For the tenor songs we have another singer of the highest calibre, Klaus Florian Vogt.
It's Vogt's first contribution, 'Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde', that very much sets the tone for the interpretation. Many a tenor has had to push and force simply to manage Mahler's high tessitura and be audible against orchestration which, despite its often crystalline character, can prove a struggle for certain voices to cut through. For Vogt, on the other hand, these problems hardly seem to exist. One might find this a little suspicious given the recording dates list two live sessions on 13 and 14 January 2009, and one studio session on 15 January (all in Montreal) and, a month later, a session described as 'overdub with Klaus Florian Vogt' in Munich; and to my ears he receives more help from the engineers than his baritone colleague. Whatever the case, there's undeniably a refreshing lyricism about Vogt's singing that gives the tenor songs back much of the their lightness and charm – listen to his final 'Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!' in the first song, or his pleasingly scherzando ventroloquising for the bird in 'Der Trunkene im Frühling', abetted by some lovely solo violin work. Nevertheless, there's something about the recording that sounds unnatural, and about his delivery that had me on edge: a tendency for him to sound a whisker under the note – the voice sounds undersupported at 'im Spiegelbilde' in 'Von der Jugend', for example – as well as a distinct lack of heldentenor steel.
The native-speaker's instinctive reaction to the text is, of course, a great advantage for both singers, but I have no reservations about Gerhaher's controlled and sensitive vocalism. Importantly, too, his singing is often ravishing in its beauty and, despite a couple of the slightly awkward entries that catch most baritones out (such as the start of 'Der Einsame im Herbst'), his contribution is haunting in its subtlety and concentration. The variety with which he employs his vibrato is particularly impressive, allowing him to produce a pallid effect when the music requires. As a result, the glorious outburst at 'Sonne der Liebe' in 'Der Einsame im Herbst' is all the more welcome coming after so much expertly evoked emotional torpor.
Not all of 'Von der Schönheit' struck me as that effective, and Gerhaher sounds less than comfortable at the fast tempo Nagano choses for the third verse – starting 'Das Ross des einen weihert'. As always the greatest challenges are presented by 'Der Abschied' and here Gerhaher is at his considerable best, with an hypnotic control over the whole song, once again conjuring just the right sense of emotional numbness right to the song's extraordinary close.
Both singers are helped by Nagano's carefully crafted reading of the score and seductive, virtuosic playing from the Montreal orchestra. At times the conductor misses some of the score's depth – he underplays, for me, some of the angst of the horn ostinati and wind solo's in the interlude of 'Der Abschied' – and some tempo changes elsewhere struck me as a little abrupt, but there are also many delicious details to be enjoyed, including some beautifully executed portamenti in the strings. Sony's sound is, my reservations regarding the tenor songs notwithstanding, natural and clean. The decision not to include texts and translations, however, is unforgivably stingy.
By Hugo Shirley
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