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Len Mullenger:

Das Lied Von Der Erde

Janet Baker (Mezzo Soprano)
James King (Tenor)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam
Conducted by Bernard Haitink
Eloquence 468 182-2 [65.04]

Eloquence has chosen this 1975 Philips recording of Mahler's late masterpiece for reissue at bargain price and I am delighted. It's been among the finest versions in the catalogue since it first appeared on LP. The presence of Janet Baker, the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink, all on top form and matched with a superbly engineered recording, assured that. Even the tenor James King, though here marginally lacking in the characterisation that some of his colleagues bring to this work, is vital, lyrical and distinguished. It was only the fact that these singers give even better of themselves in other recordings (Baker with Leppard on BBC Classics, King with Bernstein on Decca) that led me to largely leave this version out of my survey elsewhere on this site of recordings of this work. However, now issued on its own on this new label, it leads the field at bargain price. Indeed there are some full-priced versions that are nowhere near as distinguished.

The richness and the superb balance of the recorded sound is clear from the start with both soloists placed in the aural picture just as they would be in a concert hall. I don't want to disparage recordings that bring the singers closer to the microphones. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've always believed there are arguments to suggest that a recording should not try to mimic the balance you would hear in a concert hall since listening in the home is a different experience. However, it's always interesting when the concert hall balance is tried and succeeds, as it does here. No producer or engineer is credited but I suspect both functions were filled by Haitink's long time Philips collaborator Volker Straus. Comparing the sound of this CD with the original LP you can also hear the remastering engineers have used the latest techniques to enhance the excellent original rather than change it in any way, and for that we should be grateful.

James King sings out well and heroically in all his songs, which he needs to do when placed by the engineers as I have outlined. A little more subtlety and "word painting" would have improved his contribution, especially in the third song, but this is really marginal. Janet Baker on the other hand does bring the awareness of words that I felt James King just missed. Indeed her response to every aspect of these wonderful songs should be an object lesson for all singers coming new to this work. Sustained over the longest possible span, her performance of the final song, "Der Abschied", is one of the most moving interpretations that has ever been set down. Only Baker herself surpasses it "live" with Raymond Leppard on BBC Classics a year or so later even though the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra are no match for the Concertgebouw in this recording. Bernard Haitink accompanies both singers superbly. I could instance many passages that illustrate this but you can listen to the close of the fourth song with Baker, Haitink and the orchestra in perfect accord for as good an example as any. The Concertgebouw Orchestra plays right the way through with effortless attention to detail and all their matchless knowledge of this music covering Mahler's entire exquisite sound world.

This is one of the best recordings of this work and now at bargain price it is irresistible. If you don't already have it, snap it up now. 


Tony Duggan

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