ArtsWatch guest post: David Bernstein reviews “The Song of the Earth”


MAHLER: The Song of the Earth (MSR Classics)
Martingale Ensemble directed by Ken Selden

In the summer of 1907, a friend gave Gustav Mahler a copy of Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute,” a collection of German translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry. The German translations of these poems well suited the great Austrian composer’s state of mind, his philosophy of life and death, and his desire to live fully and accept death – not without regret – but rather with the inevitability that there may also be renewal.

In fact, many Mahler works relate to his ever-present thoughts on death and on the meaning of the many beauties that exist in nature. No greater work by Mahler so amplifies these thoughts to us, for us, and on behalf of us all, than his setting of these poems, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). If there is joy in loving life and knowing death, it is in the intense passion, excitement, ecstasy and loneliness exhibited in such a work as this.

This symphony-song cycle’s six movements in many ways represent the apotheosis of what solo voices can do matched with an orchestra whereby both protagonists – voice and orchestra – are on a completely equal footing. And the added interpretation of a text brings yet another level of dimension to this piece that can rarely be equaled by any other work in the repertoire of this kind.


In the first of the songs Mahler set to music, for example, one stunning line of text closes off each of three stanzas: “Dark is life; dark is death.” After concluding the first phrase of this text in G Minor, Mahler drives the tension of this repeated text higher by repeating it in Ab minor, followed again but repeated in A minor as the movement concludes. This is so awesome. G-G#-A… the sequence of tones used frequently enough as an accompanying motive behind other major ideas, but now employed at a macro level. Was it planned, or did his genius just inevitably lead his ear to do this as a major structural element for the piece? It’s part of what makes this opening song a totally unforgettable experience.

Mahler originally scored “Song of the Earth” for a full orchestra with tenor and baritone voices alternating in each of the six movements. (Although the role of the tenor can be performed by a mezzo/alto instead, we know that he preferred male voices for his music.) But can a version for a much smaller ensemble compare to the power of Mahler’s original vision for large ensemble? This new recording by Portland State University music professor Ken Selden and a 14-member ensemble of top-rank Oregon classical musicians provides the answer.

Mahler’s admirer, the groundbreaking composer Arnold Schoenberg, began working on a chamber version back in the 1920s, intended for a series of contemporary chamber music concerts the composer founded in Vienna; it was completed by Rainer Riehn in the 1980s.

This chamber version shows how large the role of chamber music writing (one player to a part) can play in the overall scheme of composing for full orchestra. This contrast between chamber writing and orchestral writing distinguishes this piece and so much of Mahler’s other music from that of other composers. The chamber concept succeeds because Mahler’s original scoring is written soloistically for a number of instruments: the flute, the oboe, English horn, French horn, the violins and cellos. This works in the original and it certainly works here because it is so faithful to the score as he meant it to be.

Ken Selden

Ken Selden

In the chamber version, the opening ”Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery” does lack some of the original’s power, and that no chamber version can compare with. After all, one French horn in this version is never going to compete with the motive from the opening that is scored for a blend of four horns on a unison melody. But – surprise! – in many respects it does. Well balanced with the other members of the wind quintet, one horn can have sufficient power to justify the opening here. And when combined with the string quintet and percussion instruments (which include keyboards), it does help to richly color this version. In a chamber combination of winds and strings, the use of percussion colors can be subtle and critical; they are always necessary.
However, one does miss the color of the two harps from the original. It is not the same when substituted by a piano and/or other keyboard instruments. Moreover, substituting a keyboard for either one or two trumpets and also the horns four times is too weak, too “colorless.” It’s difficult to believe that either Schoenberg or Riehn would have made this decision.
But there are actually places in all six movements where the clarity of the counterpoint is better projected in this version than in the original, because one player on a melodic, contrapuntal line may project better than when the part is doubled. Also, from an economic point of view, a performance of this version may simply be more practical assuming, of course, that two voices as strong as those of tenor Robert Breault and baritone Richard Zeller can be found to accompany any ensemble.
Breault is outstanding, not only in the opening lied but also in the third and fifth movements, and he and Zeller sing with impeccable diction and passionate intensity. Their performances compare favorably to other artists such as tenor René Kollo and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who have done this work. In many respects, the singing is superior to other performed and recorded renditions, including the one this writer heard in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra some four months ago.
This complex work demands profound attention to details of rhythm and balance among the forces, and the performance by conductor Ken Selden and the instrumentalists under his baton is excellent, as is the quality of the recording.

As a postscript, think of this work in the context of Mahler’s predecessor, Franz  Schubert. Think of what he did with his more than 600 lieder compositions and how important he was to the development of the German art song throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. And then imagine Schubert (long dead by the time Mahler wrote “Song of the Earth,” of course) sitting in the audience for the premiere of this enormous creation about to be conducted by Bruno Walter. Would he even be able to rise from his seat at its conclusion; would not his tears be flowing with such profusion…would he then say to himself: “What I did helped lead to this. I was not here for long, but what I did mattered.”
Alas, if only he could know.

Portland composer David S. Bernstein is founding president of Cascadia Composers.

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