I don’t actually know when it was that I first listened to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde — that ‘Symphony for Tenor, Alto and Large Orchestra’ of 1908-9 — though, clearly, it will have been after my discovery of Mahler in June 1979. I have a vague recollection that I borrowed Solti’s 1972 recording from one of my local libraries; and I also remember that I didn’t much like what I heard. Nevertheless, there came a time — only a year or two later — when one of the most important things in my life was a passage from that work.
The bit I’m talking about comes in the finale: it’s the extended, distinctly funereal march interlude that appears before the last of the movement’s three parts. I remember how — once I’d taught myself to read music, and had found a piano-vocal score of this piece in another of the libraries I used to go to — I’d spend hours working my way slowly through all the fantastic dissonance-laden counterpoint that Mahler wrote here with such amazing clarity. (If there’s anything in this work that isn’t clear, we should remember that not only was he doing things that neither he nor anyone else had done before, but also that he didn’t live to conduct it — and so was never able to tweak the orchestration in and between rehearsals like he normally did.) Part of my reason for studying this passage so closely was that I wanted to discover ‘how he did it’ — so that I, too, could write things like that. (I’m almost certain you’ll be wondering how that turned out.)
From my particular point of view, one other good thing about this stretch of music is that it doesn’t include the singer — which means that if the performance involves an alto whose singing is ghastly beyond endurance (something which, in my rich and painful experience, happens most of the time), this passage will still stand a chance of making its effect.
Before presenting an old recording of this part of Mahler’s finale — whose title, by the way, is Der Abschied (‘The Farewell’ ) — I’d like everyone to have the opportunity to hear it in fairly modern sound (though filtered through several computers, of course). I think the music speaks for itself; so here we go:
Well, if you survived that, you may wish to proceed to my historical recording — which I’m posting for a reason that I’m not going to explain: if you listen through to the end of the clip, you’ll hear for yourself. All I’m going to reveal here is that the musicians involved are the German conductor Carl Schuricht (1880-1967) with Kerstin Thorborg (alto), Carl Martin Öhmann (tenor) and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; that the performance (which was broadcast, and survives on acetate discs) took place in Amsterdam on 5 October 1939; that the Second World War was then little more than a month old; and that Nazi Germany was to invade the would-be neutral Netherlands in around seven months time. I’ve coded this clip to end a little later than the other one: I think the last voice you hear should be that of the singer.
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