Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker bring their complete performance of Gustav Mahler’s major orchestral works to a close with Das Lied von der Erde – for Arnold Schoenberg, the work by the composer which “points furthest into the future”. Mahler himself however characterised the Lied with another superlative: as “probably the most personal work I have written so far”.
As a listener it is easy to agree with Mahler’s assessment. For although Das Lied von der Erde exudes a certain exotic strangeness through the use of 8th century Chinese poetry, the listener always has the feeling of being addressed directly and intimately by the composer. Firstly, because Mahler forgoes the gigantic orchestral forces of his symphonies, and secondly, because the listener always feels that the sadness of these songs is not a pose. Mahler, already terminally ill at the time of composition, eulogises here the departure from life with a sincerity that still moves us today.
The final scene from Leoš Janáček’s operatic fable The Cunning Little Vixen which opens the concert, reveals fascinating parallels to Das Lied von der Erde. Janáček, born like Mahler in what today is an area of the Czech Republic, creates a wonderfully delicate scene in which the Forester ponders life – and in turn bids farewell to youth and beauty.