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Recording of the month

Bitter tears

Kathleen Ferrier sings
'Das Lied von der Erde'
on Naxos Historical -
is impressed

'... mastery of word-painting ...'

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde; Three Rückert Lieder. © 2003 HNH International Ltd

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.

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Copyright © 14 May 2003 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, UK


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