Michelle DeYoung / Brian Jagde / Liping Zhang / Long Yu / Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Gustav Mahler, Xiaogang Ye: The Song of the Earth

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Gustav Mahler, Xiaogang Ye: The Song of the Earth Review

by James Manheim

Gustav Mahler said that a symphony should encompass the world, and he perhaps never cast his net more widely than with Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"), a vocal symphony setting Chinese texts of the Tang Dynasty. The texts passed through French and several German translations before landing with Mahler, but he succeeded in creating something truly exotic, with pentatonic scales and other chinoiseries, that suggests a transcendent quality much on the troubled Mahler's mind. Here, Das Lied von der Erde is paired with a setting of the same texts, in Mandarin, rearranged but ending with the same ones, by contemporary Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye. Considering the growing popularity of Western symphonic music in China, it's a bit surprising that nobody has attempted something like this before, but this outing avoids obvious solutions and is quite absorbing. It's notable that Ye, partly trained in the West, generally does not attempt a Chinese-sounding score. Instead, he takes the position that the project as a whole represents a kind of cross-cultural exchange. His most prominent model is Mahler, and he follows Mahler's forces with a pair of voices and an orchestra in which the brass have a great deal to do, but neither does he follow Mahler slavishly, and the result is a score that feels Chinese without obvious clues. The dramatic finale has an entirely different effect from Mahler's reflections on death and farewell. As for the Mahler, conductor Long Yu and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra prove themselves competent Mahlerians whose rather quick performances play up the Chinese elements and aptly capture the work's trajectory from "The Drinking Song of Earth's Misery" to the heavenly conclusion. Long Yu's singers in Western in the Mahler and Chinese in the Ye, all acquit themselves well, but mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who has recorded the work before with the Minnesota Orchestra, is a standout. This delivers exactly the thoughtful cross-cultural document it promises.

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