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Strength, poise and purity

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Ferrier, Svanholm and the
New York Philharmonic
conducted by Bruno Walter

CD Review

The magic of a work performed by the composer's muse is all the more special when the instrument is the voice, since the hues and timbre of the singer concerned will have contributed so much to the sound world of the creator's inspiration. To hear Pears sing Britten or Bernac in Poulenc is to witness an almost spiritual melding of inspiration and artistry that probes not just to the music's heart but to its soul. So, one might fancy, could have been - should have been - the rapport between Gustav Mahler and Kathleen Ferrier.

Of course, Ferrier was born too late to be Mahler's muse, but so profound was her insight and so perfectly attuned her instrument that the listener may well imagine otherwise. Glorious as Ferrier was in other repertory, something special happened when she sang Mahler: her voice seemed to 'become' the music. Just as Mahler's sound world is always tinged with melancholy (even upbeat passages are darkened by his orchestration: a mournful oboe will struggle to be merry; bright string tuttis will protest their joy too strongly as though to subjugate some unspoken pain) so in all she sang the beauty of Ferrier's voice appeared suffused with grief and an undefinable yearning. Listening to her today, the tremendous strength, poise and purity of the sound only add to the sensation of vulnerability, as does our consciousness of her early death. There is a longing in her voice, an ache bravely borne; we can even be forgiven for falling into the sentimental trap of imagining we detect some foreknowledge of her own tragic fate.

By the time Bruno Walter set down his definitive studio recording of Das Lied von der Erde (Decca 414 194-2), Ferrier was indeed aware of the cancer that would claim her life within a year; however, we should remember that Mahler's masterpiece had long been the great mezzo's signature work: this score had opened doors for her and revealed her gifts to audiences the world over. How illuminating, then, to hear a different Walter/Ferrier performance of Das Lied from 4½ years earlier, issued now at bargain price by Naxos in their 'Historical' series. Ferrier's reading is every bit as rapt and impassioned as it was to be in 1952; indeed, her vocal quality seems, if anything, to have been enhanced rather than impaired by the fact that she was recovering from a winter cold at the time of this 1948 New York Philharmonic concert, for her voice tears the heart with its ecstatic poignancy. Her rendering of Der Abschied is stunning. Walter and the orchestra are inspired by Ferrier's example to comparable heights, while a remarkable partnership is rounded off by the fine Swedish tenor Set Svanholm, a singer far more suited to this music than many others on record (I can think of more than one recording of Das Lied where a potentially fine performance is compromised by an inappropriate choice of tenor).

In their accompanying booklet Naxos are refreshingly frank about the poor state of this private recording (it originates from a post-war audio enthusiast's 78 rpm acetates) and although the company should be commended for tracking it down and cleaning it up, yes, be warned that allowances have to be made, particularly in the first three movements. These demand attention for reasons of historical interest, of course, but it must be said that the sound becomes increasingly hard to tolerate on repeated hearings. In fact, though, of the soloists Sandholm's contribution is the more seriously compromised, and the misgivings of the first twenty minutes are swept away by Ferrier's wonderful interpretation of Mahler's great final song of farewell. Undoubtedly her countless modern admirers will be thrilled by this opportunity to commune with a Carnegie Hall audience of half a century ago and glory in some magnificent music-making.

Copyright © Mark Valencia, March 14th 1999


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Kethleen Ferrier (mezzo-soprano)
Set Svanholm (tenor)
New York Philharmonic
conducted by Bruno Walter

Naxos Historical 9.110029

AAD                  Playing time: 59 mins
(live recording from Carnegie Hall, New York,
8th January 1948)



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