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Gustav MAHLER (1860 - 1911)
Kindertotenlieder (1901-4) Ü
Symphony No. 4 (c. 1900) *
Kathleen Ferrier (Ü), Desi Halban (*), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (*), New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (Ü)/Bruno Walter
Recorded at Kingsway Hall (London), 4 Oct 1949 (Ü), Carnegie Hall (New York), 10 May 1945 (*). Sound restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn.
NAXOS GREAT SINGERS 8.110876 [73'13]


I looked at the booklet cover, with its "Great Singers - Ferrier" headline and prominent photograph, and promptly did a double-take. I know she was a "Great Singer", but surely not even Kathleen Ferrier could have satisfied the vocal demands of Mahlerís Fourth Symphony? No, of course not, and yes, I do know better than that. However, suppose that I didnít? I could have been one distinctly disappointed punter when I got this treasure home!

I guess that 2003 being the 50th. anniversary of Ferrierís sad and untimely death must be the motivation behind Naxosís contravention of just about any "Trades Descriptions" legislation going. She is involved in only about one third of the total running time, whereas conductor Bruno Walter is firing on all cylinders throughout. By my reckoning, that makes the only justifiable categorisation of this CD "Great Conductors - Walter", and Naxos would do well to correct this as soon as is practicable. Having said that, I hope they retain the wonderful photograph - no-one can deny that Kathleen Ferrier is a sight more pretty than Bruno Walter!

These two recordings were made on the blurred boundary between the "old" 78 r.p.m. era and the "new" 33 r.p.m. era, a boundary further blurred by the emergent magnetic tape technology. According to Mark Obert-Thornís customary and useful "Producerís Note", the earlier (1945) recording was actually made on LP lacquer masters which were then copied to 78 r.p.m. masters for production. When LP finally arrived in the shops, the original masters were transferred to magnetic tape, which was then used to produce LPs. The latter (1949) recording was mastered directly onto magnetic tape, and went straight on to LP. To have the two side-by-side on this CD is thus fascinating in itself.

Restoration of such recordings is a different ball-game from that of restoring 78s. The newer technologies overcame the constraints of the older, reducing the noise and distortion inherent in the recording and production processes. However, as is ever the case, these new technologies brought their own new limitations, most notably that of tape "dropouts". However MO-T reports that, in its LP incarnation, the earlier recording preserves some of the "thumps" that were a feature of the lacquer mastering process, so - if youíll forgive the pun - all is not entirely clear-cut.

From the sound on this CD I imagine that, unless he had access to LP pressings unsullied to an improbable degree, MO-T must have made at least some use of "de-clicking". Likewise the residual hiss, being slightly granular in quality, points towards the application of "de-hissing". However, the fact that the hiss is plainly though not obtrusively audible indicates that a deal of care and judgement has been exercised in reaching a compromise between "de-lousing" and preserving the quality of the original recorded sound.

MO-T suggests that the latter recording "remains quite vivid", and that the earlier one "present[s] the sound with a fidelity years ahead of its time". Well, I am old enough (just!) to have bought, in my early days, several monaural LPs. I have enduring memories of listening, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, to those records. In more recent years, I got round to wondering whether those memories are exaggerated by both the inflammatory nature of the young mind and the nostalgia-inducing passage of time. However, conversations with like-minded friends have convinced me that the impressions of sound quality carried in such memories are essentially accurate. Iím thus as sure as I can be that these recordings are, in the context of their milieu, pretty well as MO-T describes them.

The rough ball-park is somewhere between good quality AM and monaural FM radio. Only if you are daft enough to insist on the hi-est of fi without exception should you give this disc a miss on grounds of sound. Why "daft enough"? Because, in a nutshell, these performances are indeed the "treasure" to which I alluded in a somewhat throwaway manner in my first paragraph!

Looking first at Kindertotenlieder, we find Ferrierís lush contralto in full bloom, an utterly gorgeous sound that set me wondering, "Why donít we have any real contraltos like this any more?" It seems to be true, doesnít it? Nowadays, with the fading of stars like Ludwig and Baker, you look around and there seem to be only mezzo-sopranos masquerading as contraltos.

Itís not simply the tone of her voice, spine-tingling as that is. Itís also a matter of the control. Ferrierís voice had a vibrato but, unlike many a yowling cat that I could mention (but wonít, for fear of libel action!), kept the lid on it even when she ascended to the upper reaches of her range. More so than many, she seemed to have separate knobs to control dynamic and pitch. These controls are all-important keys to the door of exalted musical expression.

Expression is itself the key to Kindertotenlieder. Rückertís words and Mahlerís music both dealt very sensitively, not to say diplomatically, with an extremely delicate subject, so itís hardly surprising that you need a singer of comparable capabilities to perform them. Ferrier seems to have been one of very few who possessed that capability. To have both Ferrier and Bruno Walter, with his direct line of descent from Mahler himself, together on record might seem like a gift from the gods. In fact that might be precisely what it is. You can read in Malcolm Walkerís booklet note how record company contracts - Ferrier was with Decca and Walter with Columbia - came precious close to scuppering the partnership altogether. Fortunately, sense was seen, resulting in this Columbia recording and, by reciprocation, the Decca recording of Das Lied von der Erde. Ultimately, the gods were embarrassingly bountiful!

Ferrier modifies her tone in response to the emotional shading of each song - in the first her declamation is full and confident, in the second more tentative and "floated". That separate knob for dynamic has a remarkable range of adjustment, which is most evident in the fractured "nursery rhyme" of the third song ("Wenn dein Mütterlein"). The first outburst (around 1'24) has astonishing force, which might be a mundane reason for the slight "catch" in her voice at about 2'30. Yet, less than a minute later, she expresses "Oh Du!" with melting tenderness, and goes on to bring a huge surge of emotion to the extension of this phrase, before tailing off in "exhaustion".

The voice is set well forward of Mahlerís mostly chamber-scale orchestra, yet orchestral detail is never under any real threat. In fact, Walter and the engineers have clearly been at pains to maximise the abundance of such details. Perhaps surprisingly for such a dark work, the presence afforded the silvery glockenspiel is remarkable. Then again, perhaps not, as Mahler knew well enough what he was about and Walter, of all the conductors who have ever recorded Mahler, knew the composerís mind better than anyone. Whether or not you view these pinpricks of light against that sombre backdrop as symbolic, there is no denying the feeling of an icicle being prodded between your shoulder-blades. Neither is there any denying the skill and understanding with which Walter marshals his forces, both in terms of the flexibility of line and balance of colours - never has Mahlerís orchestration sounded more "wood-cut" than it does here. Of course, some of the credit for that must go to the fabulous solo and ensemble playing of the VPO!

The last song ("In diesem Wetter") is the one perhaps most at variance with modern interpretations. Adopting a fairly deliberate pace, Walter does not "milk" the violence. By giving himself exactly the right amount of elbow-room, Walter seems to achieve two things. Firstly, the raging elements are very definitely - and properly - experienced from the inside of the house, their threat muted by the intervention of some stout stone walls. Secondly, he opens out the amazing colours inherent in Mahlerís score in a way that just isnít possible if the "heavy mob" is given its head. If proof were needed, just listen to the pizzicati that Walter elicits from the VPO strings - cutting viciously through the texture rather than swilling around within it.

At the same time - and maybe I should say "thirdly"! - Ferrier doesnít have to either babble her words or yell her head off, but sing her line in a voice not so much panic-stricken as laden with fear and regret. In the slow coda, Walter resists the obvious temptation to let the music wallow interminably. By keeping it moving, he finds the feeling of a simple lullaby, in which Ferrierís tone becomes delicate but not pianissimo, her song frail but also reassuringly prayerful.

Given the constraints, the sound is marvellous, cushioned in a warm bloom courtesy of the Kingsway Hall. True, the bass is a bit confined, and the sound does harshen a little in extremis, but itís nothing to write home about.

Turning to what must be, given the presentation, described as the "fill-up", there are further wonders to behold in Walterís view of the Fourth Symphony, a curiously apposite companion-piece to Kindertotenlieder. Walter sets his stall out in no uncertain terms: from the word "go" his pacing is leisurely and elastic, but disciplined. He rides the tempi like a seasoned horseman, operating the musicís marvellous machinery within unforced, "natural" limits which are always related to a consistent, underlying pulse. This discipline is extended to the dynamics where climaxes, although by no means under-nourished, are never cranked up to fever pitch. At the other extreme, pianissimi are likewise never allowed to dissolve into inaudible whispers. Dare I suggest that latter-day conductors tend to succumb to this temptation in the ever-more-difficult search for "something new" to say about the music? If so, then it is something of an irony that we can find that "something new" simply by picking up this CD and turning back the clock nearly 60 years.

In the first movement, Walter unerringly evinces the apparent simplicity that Mahler intended: there is a pervasive feeling of an orchestral "playground" such that the big climaxes sound not so much aggressive as the play getting "over-boisterous". His ear must have been phenomenal. There are details in this recording that, if I have been aware of them previously, I have passed over as unimportant. In Walterís hands, everything seems important!

For example, at the central climax I was suddenly conscious of the continuous whooshing of the tam-tam. Consequently, at the reprise of this climax (leading up to the big statement of the second subject), I was aware that the incessant string of cymbal crashes didnít just pop up out of nowhere. Itís not that I hadnít heard the tam-tam before now: the difference was that Walter had somehow connected the tam-tam and the cymbals, integrating them into the logical fabric of the music.

Implicit in what Iíve just said is that there is a clarity in the performance and recording that is exceptional - and Iím tempted to go along with MO-T and omit the qualifying "for its time"! Walter and his New Yorkers find a veritable kaleidoscope, from the gruff growlings of the double basses upwards. You can hear the contrabassoon, never mind the "sleigh-bells", and wherever the woodwind are called on to colour the strings, that colour comes up as bright as new paint!

So it is in the macabre second movement, again fairly expansive but kept mobile so that the soupily sentimental bits donít drown in their own sentimental soup. Walter finds a rainbow lurking in the dark shadows, and the fiddler really does sound scrawny. Then again, how often do we hear the huge bass glissando at the end of this movement?

Contrariwise, Walterís view of the great adagio movement is, relatively, less leisurely. He may dispatch it in under 17Ĺ minutes, but it doesnít sound like it, largely because heís focusing above all on projecting the lovely line of the music, following its contours and letting it flow with completely natural expression. Even so, thereís no lack of dramatic contrast - I had to keep reminding myself just when this recording was made!

The finale brings the one really big question mark about this performance. The soloist is Desi Halban, a soprano with a not especially pretty voice, having a distinct tendency to a certain shrillness and surging that may have the family cat running for cover! It sounds as if she is situated in the vicinity of the back-desk violas, which is probably just as well. If that is indeed where she was standing, I wonder who came up with the idea, and the sort of diplomacy to pull it off? To be ruthlessly fair, in compensation Halban does have plenty of character, lending considerable thespian expression to the often lurid text, in which a "childís picture of heaven" has precious little to do with sitting around on clouds playing boring old harps.

Walterís basic tempo is a sturdy "march", from which he deviates with his now customary elasticity. The Big Surprise comes in the final, dream-like stanza. There is no linger-longer drifting wistfully into a lazy sunset here. As near as dammit Walter takes it at tempo primo, a robust andante! Maybe Walter was making sure that the textual thread was not severed, but this is the one tempo over which I have my doubts, because there is a particular sweetness in the way that Mahler spins out the melody that cries out for some relaxation. Maybe Iíll get used to it?

Make no mistake, though, in its historical context this recording is phenomenal. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall may be a bit on the dry side, but thatís simply part of the price to be paid for the ground-breaking clarity of the sound - the other part being the less rotundly warm quality of the New Yorkers as compared with their Viennese counterparts. Full marks to MO-T for another excellent rescue mission.

I suspect that most people will buy this CD for the performance of the headlined "Great Singer", and Iíd say itís certainly worth its modest asking price for just that. Nevertheless I hope that all such folk will end up equally enchanted by the work of the footnoted "Great Conductor". Make no mistake, Kathleen Ferrier may deservedly have the top billing, but Bruno Walter is the real star of this show.

Paul Serotsky

see also review by John Quinn

 



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