In an interview that serves as the sleeve notes for his recording, Jonas Kaufmann describes his first encounter as a student with Das Lied von der Erde, in the classic recording conducted by Otto Klemperer. Kaufmann says he immediately tried to emulate Klemperer’s incomparable soloist Fritz Wunderlich in the three tenor songs, but doesn’t reveal whether at that stage he thought he could sing the three other numbers too, which Mahler designated for either a contralto or a baritone. (It’s Christa Ludwig, still unsurpassed, on the Klemperer recording.) Yet here he is tackling all six, in a recording taken from concerts in the Vienna Musikverein last June.
Performances with a baritone rather than a mezzo or contralto as the second soloist appear to have become more common over the last decade, following the example set half a century ago by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Thomas Hampson and Christian Gerhaher, in particular, have showed how effective a second male voice can be. But though Kaufmann’s voice is regularly described as having baritonal qualities, he is not, at this stage in his career at any rate, a true baritone, and there are moments in all three of the contralto songs when he seems to be struggling to muster enough weight of tone to support the vocal line. Parts of the final Abschied are almost crooned, and the repeated closing “Ewig” is virtually toneless.
It’s a triumph of hubris over sound musical judgment, which does nothing for the tonal contrasts between the songs that Mahler carefully built into the work, and has a serious effect on Kaufmann’s performance of the three tenor numbers too. They are a gruelling test for any singer, let alone one who is allowing himself no respite during the other numbers, and even in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, there’s none of the effortless power, the sense of the voice surfing over the surging orchestral textures, that the greatest interpreters achieve. It all becomes a bit of a struggle.
A real disappointment, then, which isn’t helped by the rather routine orchestral contributions of the Vienna Philharmonic under Jonathan Nott. At best, this is an interesting experiment that really shouldn’t have been enshrined on disc. (Andrew Clements / The Guardian)