Gustav Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde

Media Review / Comparison

2014-12-14 — Original posting
2014-12-17 — Added links to concert review
2016-07-30 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction / The Recordings

This posting is about Gustav Mahler‘s orchestral Song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde“, of which I currently have 3 recordings:

The first two are also present in my LP collection. The third one appeared in connection with Bernstein’s second complete recording of the Mahler symphonies, in 3 CD sets.

Background, About the Composition:

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) wrote his cycle of orchestra songs “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth) between 1908 and 1909; Leonard Bernstein called it “Mahler’s greatest symphony”. The work was composed after Mahler lost his job at the Vienna State Opera (he fell prey to political maneuvers as well as to antisemitism), Mahler’s eldest daughter died, and he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. This explains the selection of poems, which talk about live, departure and salvation.

Mahler based these songs on a collection of Chinese poetry “Die chinesische Flöte” (The Chinese Flute) by Hans Bethge. This turned out to be based on existing translations of works by several Chinese poets, see below. The full text of the poems, along with comprehensive information on the composition, can be found here. Mahler wrote the songs for (alternating) tenor and alto voices, with a remark that the latter part “could also be sung by a baritone, if necessary”.

The Movements:

According to the score, the entire cycle last for about 60 minutes. The Chinese sources are indirect, as outlined above; all of the Chinese authors are from the Tang dynasty.

  1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery)
    for tenor & orchestra, original poem by Li Bai
  2. Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn)
    for alto (or baritone) and orchestra, original poem by Qian Qi
  3. Von der Jugend (Of Youth)
    for tenor & orchestra, original poem by Li Bai
  4. Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)
    for alto (or baritone) and orchestra, original poem by Li Bai
  5. Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunken Man in Spring)
    for tenor & orchestra, original poem by Li Bai
  6. Der Abschied (The Farewell)
    for alto (or baritone) and orchestra, based on several poems by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei

The composition is for a rich orchestral setting: 3 flutes (also piccolo), 3 oboes (also cor anglais), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, 2 harps, drums, celesta, mandolin, bells, triangle, cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, bass drum, and strings. A pocket score is available from Philharmonia (PH 217), Universal Edition, Vienna-London (ISBN 3-7024-2986-7).

The Interpretations, Overview:

In order to provide a rating overview (my personal, subjective rating), as well as an idea about tempo relations both within an interpretation, as well as between the recordings, I have prepared the table below. Color coding for the tempo: blue = slower / longer, green = faster / shorter (compared to the average):Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, comparison table

The Interpretations, Detail:

The Klemperer and Walter recordings are on separate CDs, in the case of Bernstein, “Das Lied von der Erde” is part of a 3-package  integral recording with all Mahler symphonies:

Bruno Walter, Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde — Walter/Ferrier/Patzak; CD coverGustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Bruno Walter, Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak,
Wiener Philharmoniker

Decca 414 194-2 (CD, mono); ℗ 1952 / © 1984
Booklet: 28 pp. en/fr/de
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde — Walter/Ferrier/Patzak; CD, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on—

spacerThis recording with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna philharmonic, with Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak as soloists was made in 1952Bruno Walter (1876 – 1962) was a close friend to the composer; he enjoyed Mahler’s full confidence in his interpretations, and he also conducted the premiere of this composition after Mahler’s death, in 1911, and he also introduced this composition in Russia and in the United States. This implies authenticity with this recording (though it was made 41 years after Mahler’s death, when Walter was 76).

Julius Patzak (1898 – 1974) was one of the stars at the Vienna Opera. Kathleen Ferrier (1912 – 1953) was a famous British alto with a very short career (1943 – 1953, when she died from cancer). She sang Das Lied von der Erde in Edinburgh in 1947, also under Bruno Walter (who admired her art), and with Peter Pears. Fighting with cancer already then, she broke out in tears at the beginning of the last song, foreseeing her own fate. So, one can hardly separate Ferrier’s personal tragedy from the interpretation in this recording, which is a key piece in her legacy.

1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde

Julius Patzak, 8’40”
The orchestra is passionate, expressive; unfortunately, for this piece, Julius Patzak’s voice is too limited in volume and strength, too lyrical, partly short-winded, lacking / losing tension in longer phrases. It’s not the right voice for this piece, I think. Even with occasional intonation issues or uncertainties, such as the Bbb in bar 190 (“der Tod”). The last part is somewhat better, more dramatic.

2. Der Einsame im Herbst

Kathleen Ferrier, 9’17”
Ferrier’s singing is congenial with Bruno Walter’s direction. One little deficit here is Ferrier’s diction, which makes it obvious that she isn’t “truly at home” in the German language. The first part of this song is extremely tricky / difficult for the singer, as the voice doesn’t really mix with the accompaniment by oboes, clarinets and pp strings. The voice is extremely exposed.

3. Von der Jugend

Julius Patzak, 3’01”
Also here I sense that Patzak is singing at his limits. In many aspects, such as voice control & support, intensity, rhythmic clarity, heights, but also coordination and volume; also the intonation isn’t always perfect…

4. Von der Schönheit

Kathleen Ferrier, 6’47”
An excellent recording (even though it’s merely mono): Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic are excellent, the interpretation (also by Kathleen Ferrier) covers the entire spectrum from calm, serene, contemplative (despite the fact that this is definitely the fastest of these three versions) up to joyful, vivid, urging — very nice! Today’s listeners will probably find that Kathleen Ferrier’s vibrato is rather strong (also in the violins, actually). As in the second song, her diction is quite clear, but definitely not genuine German, and she does not come near Fischer-Dieskau in exploring and expressing the meaning of the individual words.

5. Der Trunkene im Frühling

Julius Patzak, 4’27”
The best of the songs for tenor in this interpretation: expressive, detailed, also in the orchestra. The weakest part here is Patzak’s lack of volume and power, especially in the lower range. But it’s still a very good interpretation overall.

6. Der Abschied

Kathleen Ferrier, 28’21”
Too bad the recording can’t capture the acoustics and the atmosphere of this performance, especially in the instrumental middle part. It’s as if we had to listen through a small, remote window… but that’s forgotten when we hear Kathleen Ferrier’s touching legacy, her intense singing beyond the obvious limitations in the language (and occasionally also her voice). It’s impossible to separate her personal tragedy from this music. Along the same lines, the music is inseparable from Mahler’s personal biography!

Overall Duration: 60’28
Rating (see above for details): 3.2 — A must-have reference recording, be it only for its inherent authenticity. Of course, for many it is a key recording, for the tight linkage between Kathleen Ferrier’s fate and the music & poetic content plus Mahler’s personal biographic events.

Otto Klemperer, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde — Klemperer/Ludwig/Wunderlich; CD coverGustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Otto Klemperer, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich,
Philharmonia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra

EMI classics 566 892 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2000 / © 2000
Booklet: 32 pp. en/de/fr/es
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde — Klemperer/Ludwig/Wunderlich; CD, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on—

spacerOtto Klemperer (1885 – 1973) was one of Gustav Mahler’s protégés; he attended Mahler’s many rehearsals to the seventh symphony in Prague, and Mahler recommended him for his first important conducting post. This grants authenticity also to this recording as well (though maybe to a slightly lesser degree than with Bruno Walter).

Klemperer started this recording in 1964, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, first recording the songs with Fritz Wunderlich (1930 – 1966) and (in separate sessions) with Christa Ludwig (*1928). The recording was completed only in 1966, with Christa Ludwig; meanwhile, the Philharmonia Orchestra had been dissolved by its founder, Walter Legge, and then re-formed by its members, now as New Philharmonia Orchestra. Wunderlich was a lyrical tenor, Christa Ludwig was a lyric mezzo-soprano, very well-known for her performances of Lieder, oratorios & similar works.

1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde

Fritz Wunderlich, 8’07”
For Fritz Wunderlich, this song is “not really his department”, nevertheless he is excellent in this recording (with the support of the microphone, as even the liner notes concede): perfect phrasing, emotional, with tension. Klemperer’s slightly faster tempo probably has helped the singer.

2. Der Einsame im Herbst

Christa Ludwig, 10’11”
Klemperer’s interpretation of the orchestral prelude feels rather slow, heavy. Christa Ludwig has a clear advantage with the language, the diction, and her voice is excellent, and particularly the second half of the song is dramatic, emotional: very good, overall. Particularly in the first part, my only reservation here is the alto’s slight tendency towards slurry intonation. I’d prefer a more “instrumental approach”. This occasionally makes her singing sound like having marginal intonation, even though she clearly knows what perfect intonation is.

3. Von der Jugend

Fritz Wunderlich, 3’44”
Klemperer’s tempo is a bit on the slow side, but otherwise the interpretation is perfect. This song is ideal for Wunderlich: lyrical, allowing him to spread his voice over the wonderful melody lines! It is quite possible that the slower tempo is to Wunderlich’s advantage!

4. Von der Schönheit

Christa Ludwig, 7’47”
In the first part (mostly pp, Comodo dolcissimo), the orchestra, especially the violins aren’t really pp (they are playing with mutes, but mf, if not f), and Christa Ludwig’s singing is too extroverted, too expressive. Of course, her diction and language are excellent. Klemperer’s tempo is too slow in that part, not really fitting the content of the poem. Later, when Mahler specifies “drängend” (urging), “Immer noch drängender” (always more urging), and “Immer fließender” (more & more flowing), Klemperer’s tempo remains on the heavy side, sometimes causing Christa Ludwig to appear slightly short-winded. That’s not because of the urging, but because the phrases are getting long. The serene ending again (to me) has too much emphasis in the solo.

6. Der Trunkene im Frühling

Fritz Wunderlich, 4’44”
An excellent piece that allows Fritz Wunderlich to present his brilliant heights, his lyrical talent, as well as more dramatic sides of his marvelous voice. It’s so sad he died tragically, five months after the completion of this recording! If I were looking for the “hair in the soup”: the orchestra is never really pp; maybe (similar to Karajan) Klemperer was afraid of the orchestra losing sonority when playing really soft?

7. Der Abschied

Christa Ludwig, 29’33”
From this song alone one can safely say that Christa Ludwig was one of the greatest altos of the last century: she had an enormous volume andrange, excellent voice control (e.g., messa di voce) and diction. She does not (and cannot) reach the emotional density and presence of Kathleen Ferrier, even though her voice is clearly superior (still with a slight tendency towards slurry intonation, see above). Some parts are slightly overdone (this is not a Wagner opera, after all). the orchestra part appears somewhat “over-engineered” in the recording: the winds are too much in the foreground (lots of microphones, probably), also other instruments, such as the mandolin, which were merely meant to add color in the overall mix, not acting as instrumental solo. Yes, one can hear it all, but that’s not necessarily the purpose or the composer’s intent!

Overall Duration: 64’02”
Rating (see above for details): 4.2 — An excellent recording, primarily because of Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. To me, it  is close to a reference recording because of Otto Klemperer (though not as much as with Bruno Walter).

Leonard Bernstein, James King, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Mahler: Symphonies 8-10, Das Lied von der Erde — Bernstein/King/Fischer-Dieskau; CD coverGustav Mahler: Symphonies No.8 – 10, Das Lied von der Erde

Leonard Bernstein, James King, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Wiener Philharmoniker

DG 477 518-7 (5 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1967 – 1986 / © 2005
Booklet: 37 pp. en/de/fr
Mahler: Symphonies 8-10, Das Lied von der Erde — Bernstein/King/Fischer-Dieskau; CD, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on—

spacerLeonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) obviously can’t rely upon a direct connection with Mahler. But I think that in his feeling & emotions he is very much a brother in sprit with the composer: he lives this music, dives deep into it: his Mahler recordings (he did two complete recordings of all symphonies) enjoy an excellent reputation. This recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was made in April, 1966, in Vienna.

The tenor, James King (1925 – 2005) was the first and most prominent American heldentenor in the last century, famous for his Wagner roles, as well as for Florestan in “Fidelio”. The baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925 – 2012) doesn’t need to be introduced here. After this recording (and performances with Fischer-Dieskau under Paul Kletzki), having “Das Lied von der Erde” sung with a baritone (rather than an alto) became increasingly common. Bruno Walter apparently tried this once with tenor and baritone, but concluded that it “didn’t work”.

1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde

James King, 8’31”
King has the ideal voice for this song. This really asks for a heldentenor: great, effortless (also in the phrasing), dramatic, and with excellent intonation as well (the Bbb in bar 190 is on the spot!).

2. Der Einsame im Herbst

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 11’22”
This is the longest interpretation of this song. Yet, the beginning does not feel nearly as slow as Klemperer’s: Bernstein starts faster than Klemperer, but is a master of “unnoticed agogics”: he alters the tempo throughout the movement, without the listener really noticing! Fischer-Dieskau is simply hard to beat in this song: his voice is at the top of its abilities, the intonation and diction simply perfect — as is his interpretation of the underlying poem. Also, I don’t sense any problem with the mixing of voice and accompaniment: for me, this clearly proves that “the baritone alternative works” — provided you have the right singer!

3. Von der Jugend

James King, 3’11”
From the vocal range, James King has of course no problem with this song. Too bad he chose this affected, exaggerated articulation: the exotic aspect in this song is in the accompaniment. The middle part is OK, though: it is more legato & lyrical.

4. Von der Schönheit

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 8’10”
Ah — what a pleasure to listen! Bernstein combines the slowest and the fastest tempi (in this comparison) in his extreme rubato, following the dynamic, tempo and articulation annotation in the tiniest of details. That is all in line with Fischer-Dieskau’s superb interpretation, seemingly effortless across all tempo variations, following the meaning of every single word in the contemplative parts, almost wildly running in the urging, pressing central climax — I can hardly think of a better interpretation!

5. Der Trunkene im Frühling

James King, 4’39”
Pretty different from Klemperer / Wunderlich, but just as good, overall: the orchestral accompaniment is more detailed, both dynamically, as well as in agogics / rubato, James King has undoubtedly more power and volume than Wunderlich, but the latter has some advantage in the lyrical aspects of this song, on the other hand, occasionally one can gather that James King is not native German-speaking.

6. Der Abschied

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 31’02”
For me, the top recording of this song, because of the perfect accord between Bernstein / the orchestra and Fischer-Dieskau, and primarily because of the latter’s superb interpretation of both the music and the underlying poems. Nothing is overblown (as with Christa Ludwig in some instances); Fischer-Dieskau does not live (and suffer through) the music as much as Kathleen Ferrier; everything is well controlled (emotionally and intellectually), but the plasticity of his expression and singing is probably unmatched till today; FiDi was at the height of his abilities at the time of this recording. Finally: the orchestra sound is of course far better than in Bruno Walter’s recording, but also exhibiting far better balance than the New Philharmonia Orchestra in Klemperer’s recording.

Overall Duration: 66’55”
Rating (see above for details): 4.8 — For me, the clear winner, because of Fischer-Dieskau, because of James King (with little exceptions, though), for Bernstein’s engaged and engaging direction, for the sound technique (and the orchestra, of course), and for the overall listening experience.


Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” was featured in a Philharmonic Concert at the Zurich Opera House, on 2014-12-14, with Elisabeth Kulman, Stuart Skelton, and Cornelius Meister conducting the Philharmonia Zürich. See my concert review (in German) on, “Haydn und Mahler unter Cornelius Meister in Zürich: Der Funke sprang nicht über“. As this is in German, I have written up a separate, more extended review in the posting Mahler & Haydn, Zurich Opera, 2014-12-14.

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