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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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Here at last is the official issue of Jascha Horenstein's BBC studio recording of Mahler's late masterpiece, made under ideal conditions a year before his death. The BBC Northern Symphony had never played the work before so Horenstein was given time to rehearse them thoroughly. The result is an expansive performance that repays repeated listening because the degree of space he gives the music, allied to the familiar fingerprint of modular tempi to suit entire movements, takes us deeper than ever.

Horenstein's view of this work is dark and tinged with tragedy. Through this first song the tread is heavier, the weight of the world greater, the mood reflective. To some this might take a little getting used to, but persistence brings rewards, not least in the change of mood with the third stanza "Das firmament blaut ewig" ("The heavens are ever blue") and the opportunity Horenstein takes to mark the pizzicati in the passage while the singer is silent. Evidence of his care for inner detail allied to outer structure. After such a performance of the first song the second comes across colder than usual, closer to despair. The phrasing of the oboe is exemplary in its lamenting quality as Horenstein continues his deep analysis. Then Alfreda Hodgson's first entry is unobtrusive, her voice darker, more earthy. There is some surge of feeling at "Bald werden die verwelkten goldnen Blatter" but no real warmth, so I think Horenstein wants to stress the utter loneliness in the poem.

In "Von der Jugend" Mitchinson lightens his approach but Horenstein's held-back accompaniment reveals more angst beneath the surface. In the fourth song Hodgson's opening is as good an example as any of her feeling for words and Horenstein gives her just the space she needs. You are also aware that this song has three parts and I like the half-tone Hodgson adopts at the end where Horenstein closes the movement as you would expect, a real awareness of winding down. He is also wonderful at the chamber-like textures, helped by the closer-in recording.

The opening of "Der Abschied" is doom-laden, promising a heavy journey. Hodgson enters almost with fear, as if she is going to cause the world to end if she sings loudly. The passage describing the birds shows a conductor steeped in the Viennese tradition of that time and what conducting and playing there is around "Es wehet kuhl im Schatten meiner fichten", the words almost whispered by Hodgson and the feeling of rapt expectation extraordinary. This remarkable performance was done in one take, as if it was in front of a live audience, and I don't think I have ever heard passages where Mahler pares everything down to a few instruments taken so slowly and with such concentration.

It's hard to find words adequate to describe the final pages. Taken at as slow a tempo as could be dared, soloist, conductor and orchestra sustain a line that is unutterably moving. Indeed, there are passages in this last song where time almost stands still. According to John Mitchinson, most of the orchestra were in tears at the close.

The remastered sound from the BBC master tape is analytical, tailored for broadcast, accentuating Horenstein's way with the chamber textures where every detail is exposed by his gimlet eye. The orchestra play well but don't have the corporate elan of one of the international ensembles. However, surface sheen is not everything and I cannot recommend this recording too highly. Here is a performance where both the soloists balance each other and are matched with a conductor whose contribution is one of the greatest ever. Admirers of Horenstein will also be fascinated to hear a brief interview with him in which he speaks of his relationship to the piece and also to read the splendid notes by Joel Lazar, Horenstein's assistant at the time, who has much to tell us about the working methods of this remarkable conductor.

Five years after the Horenstein studio recording the BBC Northern Symphony performed the work "live" at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester with Mitchinson again the tenor, but this time with Janet Baker as his partner and Raymond Leppard conducting. We can speculate on how much Horenstein's influence was still with these players but it would be nice to think many carried the experience of working with him that night.

Leppard presses forward in the first song and I like the cackling woodwind against the opening horn figure each time it re-appears. For his part Mitchinson is encouraged to be more dynamic and energetic this time. It may be the presence of an audience that makes him project more but the "ape on the graves" section receives more hysteria than it did with Horenstein. He and Leppard are very perky in "Von der Jugend" with a lightening of tone after what has preceded. Mitchinson is certainly freer to smile more than he did under the rather glum Horenstein because Leppard is a more approachable character with less early-century Viennese angst. Again in the fifth song Mitchinson and Leppard go for energy. I found the delivery of the passage starting at "Ein Vogel singt im baum" contained a real Wunderhorn quality reminiscent of the Third Symphony's second and third movements.

When Janet Baker makes her first appearance in the second song we are in the presence of one of the greatest of all Mahler singers and her interpretation is formed from the first word with a tone so full it has the effect of shifting the entire attitude of this movement to something more than just a description of loneliness to the act of being lonely. Listen in "ein kalter wind beugt ihre  Stengel nieder" ("an icy wind blows down their stems") how she halves her tone for the last words and likewise, after the outpouring at "Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen" how she tempers this in the same way at "mild aufzutrocken" ("my bitter tears") with almost a whisper. Few singers can describe the young girls playing by the river in "Von der Schoenheit" like Baker either. An openness of heart is the best description and notice the pause on the word "Neckerein" ("teasingly").

Sheer weight of tone is rather missing from the tolling at the start of "Der Abschied". It could have done with a little extra funeral tread for Leppard is less good on tragic weight in this work. But when Baker enters reservations must be put aside. There is an immense contrast between the last time we heard her and now, and this ability to cover a whole world of meaning is one of the many reasons why she is so great in this work. The recording balance favours the winds and they play with character, if not with the cultured tone you would expect from one of the great Mahler ensembles. But that was true also of their account for Horenstein. "Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk" ("He dismounted and gave me the parting cup") is a token for what is to come since Baker's account of the final part of this work surpasses everything she does and that was formidable enough.

If forced to choose between these two BBC issues I would opt for Horenstein. But Janet Baker is too good to miss. So, for the small extra price of the bargain Leppard recording, why not have both versions of this timeless masterpiece ?


Tony Duggan



See also Tony Duggans complete survey of recordings of Das Lied


Tony Duggan



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