Kathleen Ferrier sings
'Das Lied von der Erde'
on Naxos Historical -
and DAVID WILKINS
'... mastery of word-painting ...'
Last year, the indispensable Naxos Historical label gave us their version of
Walter's live 1936 recording of Das Lied (8.110850). Now we have, at the
same near-giveaway price, their transfer of an even more cherished performance of
the same work -- long loved by all Mahlerians and held as a priceless treasure by
the many devotees of Kathleen Ferrier.
This restoration of the 1952 recording, engineered by Mark Obert-Thorn, manages
to keep the performance, if anything, even more honest than the familiar Decca
version. By resisting the urge to create a very full and 'in-your-face' sound
picture, he better captures not only the poignant vulnerability of the contralto's
contribution but, also, more of the individual colours of the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra. Where the Decca version has them sounding extraordinarily good, the Naxos
(more valuably) has them sounding extraordinarily themselves.
It has become something of a cliché to remark that Bruno Walter's
recorded performances of Mahler's works serve as a kind of umbilical cord that
links us back to the composer. In fact, Walter's approach to the works was, as
befits a great and changing artist, never static. The 1936 Vienna recording -- with
Kerstin Thorborg and Charles Kullman -- has, of course, the added concentration of a
live event as well as a greater urgency. Another Walter version, with the New York
Philharmonic in 1960, has the benefit of Ernst Haefliger's spectacularly imaginative
and involved tenor and another, though very different, orchestra on top form.
Opportunities for further fascinating comparisons are available on another Naxos
disc (8.110029) where Walter again conducts the NYPO but with the legendary
heldentenor, Set Svanholm, joining Kathleen Ferrier in a more profound (but
nasty-sounding) 1948 live radio broadcast.
As the vast majority of Mahler's music is, in some way, concerned with death,
it might seem little more than a tautology to describe Das Lied as a
death-obsessed work. The preoccupation has, however, shown him greater depths and
hinted at new heights by this stage in his career. The immutability of human extinction
in contrast to the abiding beauty of nature are so perfectly fused in the Chinese
poetry that it seems all but inevitable that they would have generated a masterpiece
from the time Mahler was given a copy of Hans Bethge's German translations.
Copyright © 14 May 2003
David Wilkins, Eastbourne, UK