This recording sells for the lowest price so for "Das
Lied Von Der Erde" it’s 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 work’s 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
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 Mahler’s 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.