“The entrance is barely cheaper than death.” No work embodies Theodor W. Adorno’s quote better than Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Its subject and internal structure (the fractures and dissociation along with its intensity of tremolo and rhythm) form the core aspect of the composition and thus are the cornerstones of a work which is much more than just ‘a serious piece’.
Gustav Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde in 1908 during his extremely tumultuous later life (the death of his beloved five year old daughter, his own serious health problems, bidding farewell to the Vienna Court Opera, the beginning of his American tours). Before his death in 1911, he had heard the premiere of neither the orchestral version nor his handwritten piano version.
One important result of this was that the piano version disappeared from the public eye and remained in the possession of his widow Alma Mahler (Otto Kallir was later bequeathed the autograph score). Its first performance was not until 1989. Since then, few pianists have ventured to it, certainly due to the fact that the orchestral version has itself long been established as an important work worldwide. But this one-sided interpretation is wrong. Mahler deliberately wrote two different versions, as he had kept it with his other song compositions. The piano version, with all the sonic possibilities of the instrument plumbed to their depths, must be seen as a sovereign work in and of itself. It should not be viewed as a piano reduction that Mahler wrote to go along with the orchestral version.
And not only this: as hidden as the work for piano remained for so long, so outstanding is it in the piano literature of the beginning of the 20th century. Always going into the extreme of musical dynamics, at the edge of the playful, the audibly realizable. Our recording situates Mahler in the tension between great dramatic singing and the expressionist demolitions of the 20th century. Gustav Mahler creates his own form with Das Lied von der Erde, between song and symphony, with large-format musical scenes, “ballads of defeat” (again quoting Adorno).
The pianist Christian Kälberer, together with Alexandra von Roepke (mezzo-soprano) and Peter Furlong (tenor), chooses the straight, unguarded musical path, musique directe, as a way of a dialectic of enlightenment. As Mahler wrote in a letter to Bruno Walter about this composition: I believe that it is the most personal thing I’ve done so far. At this time Mahler was still quite unsure about what to call the piece. At the first opportunity, though, he gave it the farthest, furthest title: The Song of the Earth. Contained within its musical and dramatic continuity is a complete philosophy, which is reserved for only the greatest, the most successful works of art.