Mahler & Ye: The Song of the Earth review – song-symphony returns to its golden age

The texts that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde, his great song-symphony, came to him third-hand. The German words he set had been translated from the French, which was in turn versions of poems from the golden age of Chinese literature during the Tang dynasty (AD618-907). The convoluted process took them very far from the much more concise originals, en in 2005 the conductor Long Yu asked the composer Xiaogang Ye for an orchestral song cycle using the Chinese versions of the texts that Mahler set; he compares and contrasts the two works on this recording with the Shanghai Symphony.

Though Ye’s The Song of the Earth ends with the two poems Mahler brought together for his valedictory Abschied, he chooses a different order for the earlier ones, and opts for soprano and baritone soloists (Liping Zhang en Shenyang) rather than Mahler’s mezzo and tenor. His treatment of the concise texts is much more extrovert and histrionic than anything in Das Lied von der Erde, ook, with frequent use of glissandos, particularly in the soprano writing. Ye studied in the west with Alexander Goehr and Louis Andriessen, but his musical language is an amalgam of earlier 20th-century styles, beginning with Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, with just occasional Chinese elements. It’s all very colourful, if sometimes rather overwrought.

Ye’s song cycle seems to inhabit an utterly different expressive world from that of the Mahler, but Yu’s performance of the earlier work isn’t convincing. Though the playing of the Shanghai Symphony is generally excellent, by 58 minutes it’s one of the faster versions of Das Lied on record, rather bright and brittle at times. And while the tenor Brian Jagde has the vocal muscle to cope with Mahler’s demands, there’s not enough lyrical warmth in his singing, and the mezzo Michelle DeYoung sounds utterly unengaged, her words mostly indecipherable.

There’s more Mahler on the first disc from the Bayerische Staatsoper’s own label, a performance of the Seventh Symphony recorded at concerts in the Munich Nationaltheater in 2018, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, who was then the company’s music director. Petrenko has made so few recordings that this is bound to be compelling listening, but it’s also a fascinating interpretation of Mahler’s most challenging symphony in its own right, never missing a textural detail, and strictly observing all of the score’s dislocations and abrupt tempo changes. It may not always be a comfortable experience, but it is a riveting one.

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