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Len Mullenger:

MAHLER: Das Lied Von Der Erde John Mitchinson (Tenor), Alfreda Hodgson (Mezzo) BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Jascha Horenstein BBC Legends BBCL 4042-2 apprx £12  John Mitchinson (Tenor), Janet Baker BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Raymond Leppard The BBC Classic Collection BBCM 5012-2 bargain price approx £5

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Last month Tony Duggan extolled the virtues he perceived in both these recordings. However, different music lovers hold quite different opinions when it comes to performance details so I thought you might find it interesting to read another point of view - that of Marc Bridle.

Len Mullenger


Das Lied von der Erde is one of Mahler's greatest, but most problematic, works. It is also one that has produced only a handful of great performances. Neither of these BBC discs comes anywhere near the visionary projection of Klemperer, in his last recording of the piece, or the corruscating, but intensely colourful, version by van Beinum, the two exceptional, benchmark recordings of this work.

The problem lies almost entirely in whether one takes a symphonic view of this piece, or whether one approaches it more as large-scale chamber music. For Horenstein, Das Lied clearly follows on from the vast symphonic structures of the Eighth symphony, and this performance, if nothing else, clearly presages the harrowly finality of the Ninth. There is a similar, epoch-shattering attempt to recreate the heart-rending beauty of the final movements in both of Horenstein's performances of these works. However, in both this Das Lied, and his 1966 Mahler 9 with the LSO, Horenstein evidently believes the measured distance of the movements' development somehow refines the tragedy of the unfolding drama. The effect is almost entirely superficial. The Der Abschied here is unbalanced, and hangs fire as on no other recording - a similar drawback in his remote conducting of the final movement of the Ninth symphony. The grief and ecstasy of these movements is not so much contrasted, rather that they are laid out like a corpse. Emotion is embalmed.

Similar problems present themselves in Horenstein's pacing of the other movements. The first song, for tenor, is wilful, the exuberance of the Drinking Song here replaced by something teetering between the extremes of mild intoxication and paralysis. There is nothing terrifying here - the lines 'Ein Aff' ist's! Hört ihr, wie sein Heulen/ hinausgellt in den süßen Duft des Lebens!' neither invoke despair nor have the existential horror Mahler surely intended. John Mitchinson's attempt to appear genuinely terrified by these lines is hopelessly hampered by Horenstein's refusal to draw from the score Mahler's almost schismatic atonalism. The colouration of the second song, for mezzo, does not conjure up the autumnal impression one expects - this is an autumn where the leaves have already fallen from the trees before they have had a chance to turn a melancholic shade of brown.

More worryingly, this performance has nothing of the chamber-like quality Mahler surely envisaged. The contrast between the operatic Klemperer, who carves the rich textured sonorities for oboe, flute and horn into a truly individual response from his players, and Horenstein who submerges the plaintiveness of these Mahlerian cadences beneath dense orchestration, is telling. Had Horenstein conducted more opera - any opera - this performance might just have been more compelling. Unlike the ever-impressive Klemperer, Horenstein is incapable of hearing the inner beauty and linear undertones of Mahler's delicate notation.

It is odd indeed that Klemperer's performance, recorded over a stretch of 26 months, should be a more moving experience than this single take from Horenstein. Neither John Mitchinson, nor Alfreda Hodgson, are soloists of the first rank and one feels they are sorely tested by Horenstein's deliberate pacing of the score. The orchestral playing is generally fine, but string tone is often emaciated, and there is a general barrenness to the sonorities that suggests extensive over-preparation.

Raymond Leppard's recording, from 1977, need not detain the attention for long. It is more conventional in tempo than Horenstein's, the only aberration being a final movement as long as the former, but it is also a performance that has a certain anonymity to it. Janet Baker, as one would expect of this experienced Mahlerian, is fine in Der Abschied but her singing of this is simply too late to make this performance worth considering.

Recommendable versions of Das Lied von der Erde remain unchanged by the entry of these two BBC discs into a crowded market. Klemperer is a clear first choice, but for the adventurous I would suggest Guilini's passionate, and staggeringly profound account with Brigitte Fassbaender and Francisco Araiza on DG. It makes Horenstein's performance sound like a rehearsal.


Marc Bridle

No stars awarded for either performance, I'm afraid.

See also earlier review by Tony Duggan

See also Tony Duggans complete survey of recordings of Das Lied


Marc Bridle

Zero Stars

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