MAHLER:  Das Lied von der Erde. 
Violeta Urmana, mezzo-soprano; Michael Schade, tenor; Vienna Philharmonic Orch/ Pierre Boulez, cond.

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 469 526 (F) (DDD) TT:  60:31

The Vienna Philharmonic, which premiered Das Lied von der Erde in 1912, has played it three times previously on discs—twice with Bruno Walter (in 1936 and 1952) and once with Leonard Bernstein (in 1966). Now, after a 35-year hiatus, Pierre Boulez has taken them spelunking with his pocket flashlight into nooks and crannies of Mahler’s scoring that are often (if not always, or even usually) subsumed in the concert hall. His reading pays special attention to the Chinese texts that Mahler read in translations by Hans Bethke during the traumatic summer of 1907, from which he selected poems by Li-Tai-Po, Chang-Tsi and Wang-Wei. But in the process Boulez has Gallicized the work—as if Debussy and Ravel nudged Mahler’s muse. Textures have been lightened throughout and the musical line miniaturized; even the singers he chose have light, bright voices. If Boulez didn't neuter the Vienna Philharmonic, nowhere do you hear the rush and gush of sound that Bernstein got from them in his late period, for all that it was expressively excessive.

Das Lied was never PellČas et MČlisande or L'enfant et les sortilËges, much less Parade. It is Central European in a way that not even Wagner's Ring or Parsifal were (Germanic works, rather, that Boulez has conducted with conspicuous success for more than a quarter of a century, and to which he seems to be adding Bruckner). True enough, he has conducted Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, but that leviathan profited from his "French Correction." Without sufficient flensing, it can lie dead on the beach, malodorously decomposing.

You don't have to be a Bohemian-Jew to make Das Lied overwhelmingly poignant (but being Jewish has inspired master conductors from Walter, who led the posthumous premiere, by way of Klemperer, Reiner, Solti and Bernstein, to Levine). Poignance, however, is a quality Boulez has sacrificed on the altar of his French ego. Along with a platoon of Deutsche Grammophon producers, Tonmeisters and editors, he furthermore let tenor Michael Schade, in the opening song, enunciate the phrase "Dunkel ist das Leben..." ("Dark is life") as "Dunkel ist das Lieben" ("Dark is love"with an extra "n" at the end)—not once but twice. The third time Schade got it right, but by then his forward-placement of a nasal voice (with a weird tinge of counter-tenor) had worn out any welcome. Were it any further forward, he’d need Charlie McCarthy on his knee. And I have yet to mention explosions of Angst that pass for interpretation. I suspect we'll hear more from Schade in these depleted vocal times, but his really is a voice for Erik or the Steersman, and when he gets older, Mime in Der Ring.

Violeta Urmana, lacking any biography in DGG's program insert, I know only as Kundry in the Met's slovenly Easter Week Parsifal (but didn't stay long enough to hear much more than moans and groans), plus a Chicago Symphony engagement for the Verdi Requiem this spring. Like Schade she has a light, bright voice, as much soprano as mezzo but without the tonal flesh, say, of Christa Ludwig or Jessye Norman, and certainly not the contralto bloom of Kathleen Ferrier, Maureen Forrester, Kerstin Thorborg or Janet Baker. In other words, Urmana may be distinguished but is overparted here. Lightweight soloists add to the essential Frenchness of Boulez's Das Lied. Just when you want and expect the orchestra to blossom (in No. 4, when a whinnying horse disobeys its rider and tramples flowers; or in No. 6, when “Everywhere the dear earth blossoms forth”) he keeps everyone on a short leash, strictly a tempo.

The orchestra has been superbly recorded, although Schade's placement is way too forward and his Fach too strident to let the Philharmoniker play out. Oboe and English horn solos are beautiful, with the flute only a half-pace behind, and the concertmaster free to sound Mahlerian when Boulez is occupied elsewhere. So much time and money, however, have been lavished on an end-product so nonessential, in a time when classical recordings are dying like Anthony in Shakespeare's Cleopatra, it almost makes you want to mutter"merde."

R.D. (March 2001)