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MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn    Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Soprano) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone) London Symphony Orchestra Conducted by George Szell  EMI "Great Recordings of The Century"  EMI CDM 5 67236 2

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The legendary producer Walter Legge specialised in making records that were gramophone events and this 1968 recording certainly fits that category. "A musical summit meeting" was the advertising slogan used to promote this meeting of the two finest lieder singers of the time with one of the greatest conductors at the height of his powers. When you add them to our own London Symphony Orchestra in one of its greatest periods, the result is almost guaranteed to be one of the most distinguished recordings of this wonderful collection ever placed before the public.

Distinguished, yes. But could it be classed as in any way "definitive" ? Are there any clouds on its horizon at all ? That all depends on how you view the contributions of the two singers. That Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf were artists beyond compare is not in doubt. That they brought to these songs every ounce of their vast experiences isn't either. What is, I think, in doubt is whether their particular contributions were appropriate in songs which ideally should have about them a certain air of home-spun simplicity. It is the case that, down the years, many have wondered whether the sophistication, the mannerism and the sheer intelligence presented by them, particularly in their approach to word-pointing, is too pronounced, ultimately too restricting.

Maybe this is damning with faint praise, but there's no doubt in my mind that, on repeated hearings especially, some aspects have the tendency to grate rather.

But let us be positive first as there is certainly much to be positive about. "Der Tambourg' Sell" was one of Mahler's two later Wunderhorn settings. It's a piece almost symphonic in its implications and Fischer-Dieskau delivers a classic account of it with George Szell riveting in his support. This track is as good an illustration of the disc's virtues as any. Note the close-in sound with every orchestral detail clear, the superb diction of the soloist, the penetrating vision of the conductor too, all in perfect accord. Fischer-Dieskau doesn't emote quite as much as his partner in any of the songs he sings, but I have the impression he does so more than he might to keep up with her, especially in the songs delivered as duets. Now listen to Schwarzkopf on her own in "Lob des hohen Verstandes", for example, and judge whether her pointing-up of certain words - "kraus", for example - isn't just too much of a good thing. Not to mention her "Eee-aws !" in the same song. There are many other examples where, I think, she's a little too "knowing" for her own good: too clever by half, superb though she undoubtedly is.

I mentioned that some of the songs are sung as duets, as they are in most other recordings. Be aware that there is no sanction in the score for this practice. Authentic are the versions that assign one song to one singer, as the score expects. It does sound quite beautiful when done like this, and especially as here by these two great singers. But it really isn't what Mahler asked for.

The unquestioned success of this recording is George Szell, ably supported by a supremely well-prepared LSO. He seems to have absorbed these songs into his bloodstream and you will not hear a better interpretation by a conductor anywhere else. He can go from the tragedies to the comedies to the romances in the twinkling of an eye, and yet retain a sense of an overall plan. No mean feat in this collection and an endless source of pleasure, as also is the sound balance.

This recording is now in the livery of EMI's "Great Recordings of The Century" and I have no doubt it deserves that accolade. Whether I like the recording or not is another matter. But I do admire it greatly and recommend it to you for all my reservations.


Tony Duggan

Technical appraisal from David Dyer

From its issue originally on LP this was widely regarded as "the one to have". I never did, and this is the first time I have heard this version on CD, and what a knock-out it is. The balance between the voices and the orchestra may favour the voices a little, but that merely allows us to enjoy all the inflection and subtlety with which the singers phrase the words. The orchestral detail is also there in full measure, beautifully balanced in a natural sound acoustic with space, speed and weight. By any standards this is a superb recording, which partners the quality of the performance admirably. Don't hesitate.

Sound Rating

Equipment used: Proceed CD transport. Chord DSC 1100 DAC. SPA3200 Pre-amp. SPM 1200B Power amp.  B&W Nautilus 802 Speakers.

See other Great Recordings of the Century


Tony Duggan

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