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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1907-8)
Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano)
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)
Philharmonia then New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London 19-22 February 1964
No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London 7-8 November 1964 and 6-9 July 1966
Great Recordings of the Century series
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 66892 2 0 [64’07"]


Only as recently as April my colleague Tony Duggan reviewed the Audite release of Rafael Kubelik’s live performance of this work. (Having bought the CD as a direct result of his recommendation I can wholeheartedly endorse his great enthusiasm for this tremendous performance.) I was delighted to see that among the alternatives which he singled out for special praise were three versions which I admire greatly. His shortlist included Bernard Haitink’s 1975 Philips reading, Jascha Horenstein’s 1972 traversal (BBC Legends) and this present account under Otto Klemperer.

This Klemperer recording, in its LP incarnation, was the very first recording of Das Lied to find its way into my collection and I have it still. Since I bought it some thirty years ago or more, at least a dozen other versions have joined it on my shelves but this reading has always seemed rather special to me and I don’t think it’s simply because this was the version through which I got to know the work well. Its latest reissue by EMI is, therefore something that I welcome very much.

You’ll notice that two orchestras are credited and that the recording sessions were spaced over a period of some 2½ years. As Michael Kennedy points out in his excellent booklet essay, the 1964 sessions involved the Philharmonia (indeed, the November sessions were that orchestra’s last appearances in the studios before Walter Legge disbanded them.) In their new identity as the New Philharmonia they completed the assignment in 1966 but whether the travails of the orchestra were the only reason for the delay in finishing the recording I do not know. No other version in my collection was assembled over such a period of time (and Kennedy confirms that the soloists were never together in the same studio – probably that wasn’t necessary). However, listening to the performance one would never be conscious of any sense of artificiality. The work holds together with complete coherence for which, of course, Klemperer must take the credit.

Arguably, there is another sense in which this recording may be thought by some to be a little "artificial." Michael Kennedy quite fairly admits that what he calls Wunderlich’s "heroic lyricism" in the first song was "aided undoubtedly by the microphone." Wunderlich was a marvellous lyric tenor, without a contemporary peer in Mozart or Schubert, but it must be very doubtful if his voice could have carried over Mahler’s orchestral scoring in concert conditions. His voice was not anywhere near as big as, say, John Mitchinson’s (for Horenstein) or Waldemar Kmentt’s (for Kubelik). However, I don’t think this invalidates his performance in any way. I just rejoice to hear the tenor songs done so sweetly and communicated so ardently and so well.

Thus, in ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’ (track 1) he consistently sings a lovely, musical line. His diction is excellent and every note is hit securely in the middle, no matter how high the tessitura. We hear a true lieder singer’s art every time the phrase ‘Dunkel ist das Leben’ occurs (track 1, 1’36" et seq). Another highlight in the same, demanding song is the episode at ‘Das firmament blaut ewig’ (5’13") which is splendidly poised and then ardent. The dramatic highpoint of the song, the terrifying vision of the ape (6’21") is riveting and is crowned by an impassioned, ringing top B flat.

On his final appearance in the work, ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (track 5) Wunderlich again treats us to heroic, golden-toned singing. He demonstrates the lieder singer’s expressiveness and really sings off the words. Furthermore he surmounts the difficulties of Mahler’s taxing vocal line with ease. I’m slightly disappointed by the second tenor song, ‘Von der Jungend’ (track 3) but this is nothing to do with Wunderlich’s singing, which is fully up to the standard he sets elsewhere. No, this is the one movement where I’m uneasy with Klemperer’s approach. I feel that his basic tempo is just a bit too steady for my taste. The music should have a jaunty lilt and Klemperer doesn’t quite impart this. It’s instructive to note that Klemperer takes 3’43" for this movement (and Horenstein 3’55") but both Haitink and Kubelik take 3’09" and Bruno Walter despatches the movement in a mere 3’00" in his Decca studio recording with Julius Patzak.

At no other point in the recording do I have a serious reservation about tempo and certainly not in the three contralto songs, all of which seem to me to be perfectly judged. The distinction of Christa Ludwig’s contribution is presaged by the way in which she sings her first few phrases. After a plangent, troubled oboe solo has introduced ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ (track 2) she floats the vocal line seamlessly, displaying splendidly even production throughout the whole compass of her voice. Towards the end of this song, at the words ‘Sonne der Liebe’ (8’07" onwards) Mahler asks the singer to sing "Mit grossem Aufschwung" (‘with great exaltation’) and that’s exactly what Ludwig delivers. Yet within a mere nine bars she is required to fine her voice right back to piano and she achieves this effortlessly with exemplary control of her voice.

Of course, any performance of Das Lied von der Erde inevitably stands or falls by the account of ‘Der Abschied.’ The opening doom-laden tolling of the harp presages a great tragedy, certainly in Klemperer’s hands, and in this movement the playing of the orchestra, superb throughout, reaches new heights. The otherworldly flute solo, which accompanies Ludwig’s first phrases, is magnificently articulated. Later on there are equally telling contributions from the principal oboe and horn.

The accompaniment supports a deeply eloquent performance of this immense, wide-ranging song by Ludwig. Just a few examples of her excellence will have to suffice (though every phrase could be singled out for praise.) There is generous phrasing at ‘O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt’ (track 6, 3’04"). Later on ‘Ich sehne mich, o Freund’ is invested with great longing and rapture (12’16"). She builds the whole passage that follows to an ecstatic peak before the long, dark orchestral interlude from figure 36 (14’27"). That section is handled masterfully by Klemperer, whose gaunt vision leads inexorably to a shattering climax (19’46"). Finally, ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ (26’40") tugs at the heartstrings exactly as it should. It seems as if not only the whole song but also the entire work has been leading up to this moment of ecstatic affirmation by Christa Ludwig. Like Tony Duggan, my allegiance to Janet Baker in this work is pretty unshakeable but I have to say that Christa Ludwig’s is an extremely distinguished alternative. Hers is a reading which anyone who cares about this masterpiece should hear.

I’m conscious that I’ve said relatively little about Klemperer. I feel that, with the one exception I’ve noted above (a reservation which not everyone will share) his is a masterly account of this work. He doesn’t encourage sheer beauty of playing from the orchestra – that was never his way. What he does call for, and get, is eloquent, deeply-felt playing (the woodwind solos in particular are marvellous). Furthermore, at all times the listener feels that the music is being guided by someone who is entirely at one with the composer’s intentions. In short, it is a totally idiomatic and authentic reading, somewhat severe, gaunt even, and wholly uncompromising. Klemperer’s is not the only way with this score. It is, however, an interpretation which is compelling from first note to last and which I for one find totally convincing.

The sound quality is excellent throughout and, as I’ve said, Michael Kennedy’s notes are as fine and as authoritative as one would expect from that source. The texts and the notes are provided in English, German, French and Spanish.

Some of the items chosen by EMI to appear under the banner "Great Recordings of the Century" have raised a few eyebrows. I would submit that the inclusion of this recording in the series should not be controversial. It is, I believe, a magnificent achievement. It is one of Klemperer’s finest recordings and, quite simply, it is one of the finest accounts of Das Lied von der Erde ever committed to disc. If you don’t already have this version in your library you should acquire it without delay. Even if you possess one of the other classic accounts that I’ve already mentioned this one is wholly worthy to rank beside any of them.

John Quinn

Great Recordings of the Century


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