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Walter launches the first, Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth, with abandon. Julius Patzak -- who might have been expected to have rather too light a Viennese tenor for this strenuous assault -- is well served by the recording. The words are very clear and his shading of the refrain ('Dark is life, is death') is wonderfully characterised. The climax of terrified hallucination is as chilling as you could want [listen -- track 4, 6:54-8:00] ('Look there, down there! In the moonlight on the graves squats a mad spectral figure. It is an ape! Hear how his howling screams its way through the sweet fragrance of life!')

The Lonely One in Autumn establishes Ferrier's genuine contralto depth as well as her mastery of word-painting and ability to sustain a line [listen -- track 5, 6:30-7:30] ('I weep much in my loneliness. The autumn in my heart persists too long'). Coupled with Walter and the orchestra's deeply involved fellow-travelling (accompaniment seems far too weak a word), we are led movingly into the world of the poet's bitter tears.

The other two tenor songs (Of Youth and The Drunken Man in Spring) show that Patzak, in relaxed mode, can charm and beguile as adeptly as he can cavort and carouse. He hardly sounds more strained at the end of the latter song than many tenors with more Wagnerian credentials. Mahler's writing for his vocalist is here, unashamedly merciless anyway [listen -- track 8 3:35-4:22] ('And when I can sing no longer, Then I go back to sleep; For what does spring matter to me? Let me be drunk!')

Ferrier sings the central song (Of Beauty) rather heavily. The delicacy of the maidens plucking flowers and the handsome lads on their spirited horses can be evoked with more sheer sense of wonder (as it is by Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig, for example). But in the great final song, few get closer to the heart of Mahler's intentions than Ferrier.

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Copyright © 14 May 2003 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, UK


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