While Valery Gergiev and the LSO might have completed their Mahler cycle in just one season, half of the performances already out on the orchestra's own label, LSO Live, another orchestra has been taking a far more leisurely approach to a similar enterprise, and some might say wisely.
Michael Tilson Thomas, coincidentally a former Principal Conductor of the LSO himself, has been garnering considerable praise for his on-going Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony on that orchestra's in house label.
This recording of Das Lied von der Erde will be one of the last releases in their complete series, which also includes Das klagende Lied. The Eighth Symphony and various vocal works are still to come in an enterprise whose success, in the States at least, has happily ignored the record industry's prophets of doom.
This recording – captured live from concerts in September 2007 in wonderfully detailed SACD sound – uses Mahler's alternate configuration for baritone (rather than the usual Mezzo) and tenor. In chosing Thomas Hampson, Tilson Thomas has a Mahlerian of distinction and enormous experience: he was the driving force behind a critical edition of the Wunderhorn songs with original piano accompaniment – first recorded by him and Geoffrey Parsons on Teldec – and among his many other recordings is a Das Lied von der Erde with Simon Rattle. So whatever one's reservations about a baritone taking the place of a mezzo, there could be few better singers out there to force a reassessment.
However, it is with the tenor we start, in the notoriously difficult 'Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde'. Stuart Skelton makes a very decent job of it and although his voice is a little soft-grained and a bit short on Heldentenor steel, he avoids being engulfed by the orchestra. He is also extremely sensitive to the text – time with Hampson cannot have done any harm in this regard – particularly in his next song, 'Von der Jugend'. There's sometimes a hint of strain but Tilson Thomas is acutely sensitive to balance issues, creating a texture that's clean and controlled to make Skelton's job easier.
It's the baritone, though, that has the bulk of the singing, including, of course, the half-hour long 'Der Abschied' that completes the work. Since his EMI recording with Rattle, Hampson's repertoire has increased greatly to include many of the great Verdi baritone roles. It's not surprising, then, that the voice has noticeably darkened and taken on a harder edge. This allows him to ride the big climaxes with greater ease but there were times in the recitative passages, particularly in 'Der Abschied', where it was impossible not to wish for the sounds of a mezzo, better able to float over the texture, he also sounds a little too angry in the second verse of 'Von der Schönheit'. That said, Hampson is always acutely aware of the text and it's a finely nuanced account, deeply musical and poetic.
In a way, the decision to use a baritone fits in well with Tilson Thomas's approach which only rarely allows the sensuousness of the score through: Hampson's is without doubt a beautiful voice but it is not able to provide the same consoling warmth as a mezzo might. It's a view, however, that is very well attuned to Mahler's late style, presenting it with a certain objectivity, rather than trying to imbue it with extra colour. As such, moments like the outburst at 'Sonne der Liebe' in 'Der Einsame im Herbst', or at 'Die liebe Erde allüberall' in the final song, have an extra, much-needed warmth. The playing of the San Francisco Symphony, too, is of the highest quality, fulfilling the needs of the interpretation extremely well; the purely instrumental passages, like the postlude to 'Von der Schönheit' or interlude in 'Der Abschied', are particularly fine.
There will be those for whom a baritone Lied is never going to be an attractive proposition and although this new recording is unlikely to shake that view – and I can't imagine any performance ever will – it can be commended for giving us a clean, unsentimental take on this great work. With fine soloists, captured in excellent sound and lavishly packaged, it's well worth a listen.
By Hugo Shirley