> Gustav Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde; Ruckert-Lieder [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied Von Der Erde (1907-9)
Richard Lewis (Tenor), Lili Chookasian (Mezzo)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
(Recorded in Town Hall, Philadelphia, February 9 1966)
Five Rückert Lieder (1901-2)
Frederica Von Stade (Soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Recorded in EMI Abbey Road Studios, London, December 8,15 & 16 1978


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This recording sells for the lowest price so for "Das Lied Von Der Erde" itís a very good recommendation for those on the most limited budgets. I think Ormandy sees the work very much in symphonic terms. It's a view often put forward by scholars casting the first and second songs as first and second movements, songs three, four and five running together as a kind of scherzo-intermezzo third movement (fourth song as quasi trio to the other two movements' scherzo), and the sixth song as fourth movement/finale. The reason I see this in Ormandy's account is that he seems to see the third, fourth and fifth songs in very much the same way, the same tone, with very little variation in approach from song to song though he stressed well the chinoiserie that is a feature of Mahler's orchestration. Then there is the fact that less than usual of the workís darker undertones are brought out by him. There are some lovely woodwinds at the start of "Von der Jugend", though, matched with Richard Lewis's lighter delivery paying greater dividends here than elsewhere. However, Lewis is always much more the witness than the participant, especially in comparison with others, and even more detached from the words in "Der Trunkene im Fruhling". This work must involve the listener at all times and there are passages in this recording when I am not. Though let it be said there is a fine "stepping inside" of the scene by Lewis at "Ja! Der Lenz ist da" (Yes! Spring is here") and he also manages a laugh when describing the bird's laughter.

Lewis has limited attack in the first song, though. He is more mellow and lyrical than colleagues like Peter Schreier for Sanderling (Berlin Classics 009 4022BC) but Ormandy matches him in being more lighter-toned than Klemperer, Sanderling or Horenstein (BBC Legends BBCL 4042-2). He is more concerned with the singing line and communicating energy and lift, which is certainly no bad thing in itself. There is less contrast between the varying sections of the song too. The passage starting with "Das firmament blaut ewig" is delivered by Lewis with none of the irony it is capable of and in the "ape and graves" section he is a little overwhelmed by the orchestra, well though he sings. Here Wunderlich for Klemperer (EMI 5 66892 2) manages to ride the climax admirably. Not surprisingly Lewis doesn't have Schreier's distinctive delivery on each "dark is life; dark is death" refrain" for Sanderling. The playing of the orchestra is superb, however, giving notice from the start we are in the presence of one of the world's great ensembles.

Ormandy opens the second song with admirable restraint and icy-coldness. This is late autumn with no heat at all. Lili Chookasian has a light voice and her first entrance doesn't bode too well for what is to come. All this brings some dividends when the orchestra shows a wonderful burst of warmth, especially from the lower strings at "Bald werden die verwelkten" ("Soon the withered golden leaves"). In fact, the Philadelphia strings are (and it should be no surprise) one of the glories of this recording and show Chookasian up rather. If only she could sing as well as they do! At "Ich weine viel in meinem Einsamkeiten" ("Long do I weep in my loneliness") hear also the solo horn against the oboe picked out by Ormandy and then "Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen" (Sun of love will you never shine again), where, as with Lewis in the "ape and graves" section of the first song, Chookasian is rather overwhelmed by the power of the orchestra. In "Von Der Schoenheit" she struggles to make the words tell, not least in the horse section which Ormandy takes very fast making her hang on for dear life. Then in the opening of "Der Abschied" there is some lack of tragic weight. But this is in common with what appears to be the philosophy behind Ormandy's performance. Again and again the stress is on refinement, fastidiousness, polish and no praise can be too high for the orchestra who bring really cultured playing to everything. Again Chookasian seems more than a touch under-involved. With Lewis detachment could be looked on as a positive stance but with Chookasian I feel it's simply that she isn't quite up to the peculiar demands of this piece. This is never more so than in the challenge of the last song where her rather peripheral feeling for the words tells most of all. But Ormandy's polish is in evidence throughout and a good example is his accompaniment of "Die Blumen blassen im Dammerschien" ("The flowers grow pale in the twilight"). He is very controlled too, helped by a slightly faster tempo than we are used to so that crucial line "Alle sehnsucht will nun traumen" doesn't move us as it should. He also skates too discursively over the wonderful bird section. This is a real example of his refinement robbing the music of one of its most distinctive moments: more "Ma Mere l'oye" than "Le Chant de la terre". Although that expressionist, "Pierrot Lunaire-like" section beginning "Es wehet kuhl" with flute and string bass underpinning has a fine sense of stillness it has less depth than it needs so that when the music warms up there is less feeling of respite. In the funeral march orchestral passage there is some extraordinary music where Mahler pushes the boundaries of tonality to the limit, but Ormandy rather throws it away in pursuit of smooth edges. The overall tempo is also too quick to make the effect it has to, though there is some wonderful playing from the cellos at the climax, really digging into their phrases. This is more than Chookasian does in the closing section, I feel. Her attention to the words is not really close and her tone rather one-dimensional; not expressive enough for music that expresses so much and Ormandy rather forces her on.

In sum a beautiful performance of Mahlerís late masterpiece, especially from the point of view of conductor and the orchestra. But there is more to this work than what lies on the surface and Ormandy's apparent stress on those symphonic aspects seems to encourage him in his refinement of everything else. Lewis's detachment at least seems to have point. Chookasian, on the other hand, one suspects is witness because she doesn't know how to get more involved or whether she should. On balance I think the same applies to Ormandy who doesn't really impress as a Mahlerian in this most elusive of works. He is saved by his wonderful orchestra who, in spite of some slightly faster tempi than we are used to, make this a performance to be enjoyed, for all I may not regard it as a front runner.

A coupling for Das Lied is rare but here is a very substantial one in the shape of the five Rückert Songs in a performance that finds Frederica Von Stade at the height of her considerable powers and Andrew Davis as ever an excellent accompanist. This is not a reason to buy this release, but certainly one to make up for any shortcomings in the main work.

Ormandy and his great orchestra are the real stars of this fine bargain release.

Tony Duggan

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