He may only belatedly have tackled Das Lied von der Erde, but two recordings conducted by Jonathan Nott then appear almost simultaneously. That from Tudor marks the end of a Mahler cycle to have extended over the greater part of his sixteen-year association with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, whereas that from Sony resulted from performances with the Vienna Philharmonic in which Nott replaced an indisposed Daniele Gatti. Differences in duration are slight (the greatest is just twenty-one seconds in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’) and the main distinguishing factor is the choice of soloists; Bamberg favouring the tenor and baritone option which has returned to favour over recent years, whereas Vienna is the first to feature one singer: Jonas Kaufmann follows his instincts in rendering this song-cycle-symphony as a would-be inclusive and integrated entity.
Such incremental differences are evident from the start. Roberto Saccà brings fervency and yearning to the despair of ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, which Kaufmann, for all his subtlety of expressive emphasis and often imaginative phrasing, cannot match. The Bamberg players are just a little reined-in compared with their Vienna counterparts, though the central interlude has a fluidity in the former to suggest the excitement of first encounter, then Saccà rises to the heights of his climactic entry with an aplomb which leaves Kaufmann sounding inhibited. ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ introduces Stephen Gadd into the Bamberg line-up – his translucent timbre and thoughtful yet self-effacing manner well suited to this music’s overall pensiveness, though failing to open-out at the emotional highpoints in a way which comes so naturally to Kaufmann. Nott’s handling of the texture is a model of understatement in both cases; if formal continuity is more fully sustained in Bamberg, the greater expressive contrasts in Vienna ensure the pathos of those final bars is more tangibly rendered.
Similar marginal preferences continue through the central sequence of ‘scherzo’ movements. Saccà is again better suited to the whimsical charm of ‘Von die Jugend’ than Kaufmann, who lacks poise in the bittersweet passage towards the close. Conversely it is the latter who makes more of ‘Von der Schönheit’, whether in its boisterous central episode or in those insinuating sections either side, than Gadd – whose consistent restraint verges on the non-committal. Nott summons playing of fastidious refinement in both songs, pointing up the winsome Chinoiserie of the former – more deftly in Bamberg – as tellingly as the Viennese lilt of the latter; with the Vienna account unsurprisingly making more of the bittersweet regret that informs its postlude. Neither quite captures the essence of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (interestingly, the only one of these texts set by Bernard van Dieren in his slightly later Chinese Symphony) as it lurches between wide-eyed abandon and maudlin reflectiveness, though Kaufmann more nearly gets to the heart of the matter with a wit and panache which elude the relatively straitlaced Saccà.
On to ‘Der Abschied’, arguably Mahler’s greatest final movement, and the sheer consistency of Nott’s approach is never in doubt; not least for the way that he controls the overall ebb and flow of its almost half-hour span. Here, too, the relative strengths and failings of each reading are thrown into acutest relief – hence the clarity and placing of motivic detail in Bamberg, as against the cumulative emotional impact in Vienna. Nott’s former orchestra has rarely played better, yet the burnished eloquence of the VPO (which, crucially, is never allowed to coast as it so often does in its core repertoire) yields an extra dimension; not least in the gaunt central interlude. As to the soloists, Gadd overcomes his earlier passivity to confirm an identity with these texts of departure and return, though he cannot quite match Kaufmann’s fervency as the brief while cathartic climax subsides into a calm born of eternity. In both readings, there is an all-encompassing sense of space that provides context for the foregoing: whether a baritone – or tenor – soloist is, ultimately, preferable to a mezzo-soprano in this Finale remains a matter of debate.
The recording in both instances does the performances justice, and while the SACD sound for Tudor has the greater depth and transparency, that for Sony conveys the Musikverein acoustic in ample measure. The former features another of Alfred Beaujean’s detailed and informative booklet note superior to Sony’s (in-itself not uninteresting) interview with Kaufmann, which also carries a superior English translation by Lionel Salter. Those who have been following Nott’s often-impressive Mahler cycle on Tudor need not hesitate, while admirers of Kaufmann will need no prompting to acquire the Sony. Both accounts confirm the stature of Nott among the leading Mahlerians of his generation in presenting what its composer knew was his ‘ninth symphony’ in all save designation and which remains arguably his most audacious conception.