Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde
It was clear to him from the beginning that he was writing no ordinary song cycle but something more cohesive, something symphonic. In the performance recorded here, Michael Tilson Thomas has chosen to use two male voices.
Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde—The poet is Li T’ai-po, born in 701. Wine was one of his favored topics. Here he invites us to contemplate life’s brevity and then drain our goblets. This savage song explodes with the fierce call of all four horns in unison and the cackle of sardonic laughter in woodwinds, trumpets, and violas.
After this ferocious tavern homily comes the contrast of the second song’s fatigued quiet. The poet of Der Einsame im Herbst is Chang Tsi. Muted violins paint the background against which the oboe projects its plaintive song. The baritone’s declamation is a series of restrained scale passages. Only with the thought of rest does passion inform the singing.
There follows a triple intermezzo, all on poems by Li T’ai-po. The orchestra pretends to be Chinese in Von der Jugend, a charming projection of a genre scene so familiar as to be a cliché. Under the bits of pentatonic melody it is all quite Viennese. Von der Schönheit is more spacious. The song rises to a fiery gallop, only to return to languor. The music continues the delicious erotic reverie long after words have failed. Der Trunkene im Frühling is perhaps our friend from the first song, but in reckless good humor.
Der Abschied constitutes almost half the work. Here Mahler made a conflation of two poems. The first is by Mong Kao-Jen; the second, beginning with “Er stieg vom Pferd,” is the work of Wang Wei. These eighth-century poets were themselves friends who addressed these respective verses to one another.
—excerpt from liner notes by Michael Steinberg