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Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
5 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn+
5 Rückert Lieder+

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe*
with Daniel Barenboim (piano)+
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM 5675562
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In 1952 Wilhelm Furtwängler came to London to record Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for EMI and agreed the recording should be produced by Walter Legge. This was in spite of the fact that Furtwängler had fallen out with Legge over his apparent preference for Karajan causing Lawrance Collingwood to produce his EMI recordings for some years. But the Isolde in the projected recording was Kirsten Flagstad and she only agreed to record the role if Legge produced and Furtwängler conducted. So Furtwängler was persuaded by Flagstad to work with Legge and the result has gone into recording legend. In the cast was a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and when there was time left over after completing the opera Legge suggested to conductor and baritone they might record Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Both agreed but Furtwängler pointed out he had agreed to record only the Wagner with Legge producing and now expected the company to stick to that deal. For once in his life the wily Walter Legge was outmanoeuvred (which was probably Furtwängler's intention) and Lawrance Collingwood was duly sent for to produce the Mahler songs.

You will sometimes hear it said that Furtwängler never touched Mahler's music. When this recording is pointed out the reply is that this is the exception that proves the rule. In fact, whilst Furtwängler could not be called a Mahlerian in the same way as some of his contemporaries, it is the case that he performed Mahler's music during his career. Not often and not much, but perform it he did. Between 1916 and 1932 he gave Symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 4, as well as Kindertotenlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. No Mahler during the Nazi era, of course, but after the war more performances of the song cycles. Had he not stayed in Nazi Germany and had he lived longer, maybe Furtwängler would have performed more Mahler. Maybe not. After attending a performance of Mahler's Fifth by the young Rafael Kubelik Furtwängler went backstage to congratulate his young colleague. "But is it really worth all the effort?" he asked.

Even though Fischer-Dieskau was only 27 years old in 1952 we are still in the presence of one of the great Mahlerians when we hear him sing this music. Matched with the 66-year-old Furtwängler we have a collaboration that is truly historic and inspirational in the insight both bring. The Philharmonia Orchestra was also on top form and it is good to see the recording now given the status it deserves. Tempi in the first two songs are a little more deliberate than we may be used to but they stress lyricism and world-weariness. There is also a hint of poison in the final bars of the first song. In the second song Fischer-Dieskau can still convey the jauntiness needed. Then in the third song where the mood is more animated Fischer-Dieskau stands back from the microphone allowing him to project real drama with Furtwängler in support. In the final song, if you haven't already done so, you will begin to wonder what Furtwängler did make of the First Symphony because here is more than a glimpse of what his third movement might have sounded like. His understanding of Mahler's potent funeral march rhythm is total, with a uniquely gentle down-force on the measured steps. Listen also to the way Fischer-Dieskau darkens his voice at the close. The recorded sound in the whole cycle does show its age a little, but everything is clear and, unless you worship at the shrine of hi-fi, the musicality of the recording should more than compensate.

Three years later Fischer-Dieskau returned to the recording studio to record Kindertotenlieder. He went to Berlin to record it with Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic but the great man had already been dead for a year. Had Furtwängler lived it is inconceivable he would not have been on the podium, but it was not to be. Instead we have the young Rudolf Kempe who does well though brings nowhere near the penetrating insight of his older colleague. The recorded sound here is better than two years before in being more spacious and mellow. Fischer-Dieskau's contribution is, as ever, full of insight, however. In the second song his subtle management of the higher registers that so test the singer will have you catching your breath. In the remarkable final song we hear him gruff and angry for the first part, betraying the panic and confusion of sudden loss. Then, after the point in the song where you realise the situation has changed, that the realisation of the children's death has hit the father and that he has accepted it, Fischer-Dieskau's dignified mood is deeply moving. He would make another remarkable recording of this work in the 1960s with Karl Böhm conducting, just days after his wife had died in childbirth and there he would surpass even this first effort. But this version is one of the finest you will hear.

The Rückert and Wunderhorn songs with Daniel Barenboim at the piano were recorded many years later in 1978. Barenboim was an admirer of Furtwängler so there is a tenuous link back to the recording that opens this disc. It would have been nice for these final songs to be accompanied by an orchestra but don't forget Mahler wrote these songs to be performed like this too. Indeed Mahler only orchestrated four of the Rückert songs so a case can be made that this is a more authentic way of hearing the whole cycle. They give us the opportunity of comparing the young Fischer-Dieskau with the old, hearing what a consistent artist he was and how accomplished at the start of his career, reinforcing the belief that the two song cycles we have with orchestra can be considered classic versions in spite of youth. These are faultless performances of the songs with piano, warmth and intimacy in abundance.

An essential disc for admirers of Fischer-Dieskau, Furtwängler and Mahler.

Tony Duggan

John Phillps adds

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has recorded this repertoire a number of times, and each time the performances are very similar. Where differences occur, it is usually in the recording quality and the orchestral balances. In the case of the two orchestral cycles, these were recorded early in the singer's career.

The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder cycles are in mono, but after a few seconds, such is the quality of the recording this is totally discounted. Apart from a low level of hiss and loss of spatial information, the performances have such magnetism that any shortcomings in recording quality are easily forgotten.

In today's market the competition is primarily from the singer himself on the alternative DG disc in the Fischer-Dieskau Edition. This disc has the first two song cycles, plus 4 of the Rückert Lieder in orchestral settings directed by Böhm. All of these performances are marginally slower than the earlier recordings and the HMV recording has the advantage of six additional songs.

The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is one of the later series of recordings made by Furtwängler and the Philharmonia. At this time, the conductor was going through a bad patch in his relationship with Walter Legge and had insisted that all future recordings would be done by producers other than Legge. Lawrance Collingwood was chosen to supervise these sessions, and the sound quality is indistinguishable from the EMI Tristan - no further recommendation is necessary.

The Kindertotenlieder was recorded in 1955, and up until then was usually sung by a female voice. Fischer-Dieskau was one of the first male singers to sing it. This pioneering recording made quite a stir at the time.

The disc is completed by two excerpts from the Rückert and Wunderhorn cycles. These 10 songs make up a very satisfying conclusion to the orchestral settings. Daniel Barenboim replaces the normal EMI accompanist, Gerald Moore, and makes an extremely creditable contribution.

Highly recommended - a genuine Great Recording of the Century.

John Phillips

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