This disc is such a familiar face in the classical
record catalogue that it has become the point of reference for
Mahler song cycles. It would appear to be virtually beyond criticism,
yet it is worth remembering that on its first release (minus the
Rückertlieder) it did not meet with universal praise.
Indeed, our pre-eminent Mahlerian, Deryck Cooke, found quite a
few things that were not to his taste, particularly the over-affectionate
phrasing from the conductor. Listening again to the now 35-year-old
recordings makes one realise where some of that criticism was
coming from, as well as making one sit up in admiration for the
quality of musicianship on display, especially from Baker.
As might be expected with these artists, the
songs that come off best are the deeper, more introspective ones.
There is no better example than ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden
gekommen’, and many collectors will already know the classic
New Philharmonia version from the complete recording of 1969.
EMI do us a real service by including here an earlier recording
from 1967 which was made using spare studio time from the main
sessions. If anything, it is even finer than the later one, showing
a truly breathtaking control of words and shaping. The half tones
employed by Baker give the song an ethereal feel, an almost other-worldly
atmosphere that is difficult to dislodge from one’s mind. The
spare instrumental lines are beautifully played by the Hallé.
Generally this must count as one of the greatest versions of this
song now before the public, the only real comparison coming from
these same artists two years later. The intensity is still there,
but the sense of wonderment and discovery in the earlier version
is something rather special.
These general observations could be applied to
other songs on the disc. I was particularly taken with ‘Nun
will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n’, the first of the Kindertotenlieder.
How wonderful Baker’s handling of the text is here, with the tone
filling out majestically on the words ‘in ewig Licht’ at
around 3’56. Listen also to Barbirolli’s illumination of the cello
line at 5’20, where the moulding of the phrase is so pliable.
The heartrending shift to D major in the second song ‘Nun she
ich wohl’, (around 2’51) with Baker floating over the orchestra
on the word ‘Leuchten’, is thoroughly typical of these
two artists’ loving attention to detail.
Where they are less successful (and this is probably
where Cooke’s misgivings were directed) is in the more youthful
‘Wayfarer’ cycle. Here there is no doubt that a slightly
more fleet-of-foot accompaniment would have helped. They just
about get away with it in ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’,
though even here one feels Baker wants to move things on against
her conductor’s wishes. But the second song, the famous ‘Ging
heut morgen übers Feld’ is simply too plodding to be
properly effective. If one compares Brigitte Fassbaender and Riccardo
Chailly (Decca) here, there is no doubt the faster tempo and ‘sprung’
accompaniment is far more convincing. The wild storm of ‘Ich
hab ein glühend Messer’ is also a touch tame for my liking
in Barbirolli’s hands, where Chailly really whips up excitement.
One also feels that Chailly observes correctly Mahler’s marking
of without sentimentality in ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’,
whereas Barbirolli teeters perilously close to it. Having said
that, the constant illumination of words and phrases from Baker
and Barbirolli usually more than compensate. It is just worth
remembering that there is more than one approach to these masterpieces,
and most serious collectors would almost certainly not be content
with only one version of the complete cycles. As mentioned above,
‘Ich bin der Welt’ seems to be in a different class from
almost anything else on the disc, and is worth the modest outlay
for that alone.
Recording quality is excellent, full, warm and
spacious, with plenty of detail. Affectionate notes (to match
the music making) are by the friend of both artists, Michael Kennedy.
Keen Mahlerites will probably have these performances anyway,
but younger collectors investing in this new incarnation will
have little cause for complaint.
of the Century