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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


DVD OF THE MONTH

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde

Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Torsten Kerl (tenor)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Semyon Bychkov
"I follow a voice within me" A portrait of the singer Waltraud Meier (1h 26m)
Regional Code 0 Picture Format 16:9 Sound formats PCM Stereo, DTS5.1, DD5.1 Production 2002 Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Reviewed using DTS5.1
TDK DVD 10 5188 9 DV-WMLVE [1 disc: 2h 38 m]

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Gorgeous! That applies to the performance, the film and to Waltraud Meier! But I am sure you want to know more. Since the film is much longer than the performance, nearly an hour and a half, I will start with that. This is a German television documentary made in 2001. It is typical of its genre in being serious and almost free of TV trickery like people walking along corridors and pictures of pointless scenery. It consists of a series of interviews mostly in German (with subtitles) with Meier herself and with fellow luminaries like Placido Domingo, Daniel Barenboim and the opera director Jürgen Flimm, interspersed with snippets of rehearsals and performances of Wozzeck, Tannhäuser, Tristan and so on. Meier comes over as a serious and dedicated artist with coherent ideas, presence and technique. There is much talk of the interpretation of text, of stage action, of music (of course) and one point sums up her attitude when she declares that Wagner operas make other operatic music seem one dimensional. She is an impressive lady in every respect and I was held fascinated throughout. This is the sort of documentary that the BBC has forgotten how to make and is all the worse for it. Well done German TV!

The Mahler performance is no less absorbing but of course has an enormous amount of competition on CD if not on film. Let me say at once that it stands up very well and no one is going to be disappointed by any aspect. The tenor Torsten Kerl was new to me but has a very fine voice with the sort of cutting edge that makes the words tell and which reminded me of the inevitable comparison, Julius Patzak, on that fabulous Decca recording with Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter. It has been my benchmark for decades and it is so good nothing can shift it. If I say that this performance made for interesting comparisons that is high praise. Waltraud Meier is far too intelligent an artist to sink to imitation, she has her own view of this devastating "Symphony for soloists and orchestra". Her interpretation of the final song, Der Abschied, is more restrained in that she eschews the intense passion of Ferrier to focus on the subtleties of both music and text. Where Ferrier nearly breaks one’s heart with her searing, indeed soaring, statement "Fortune was not kind to me in this world" (as well she might), Meier holds back so that the text itself can make its own impact. This brings me to the great joy of this DVD, the subtitles. They allow one to experience the very strange world of Mahler’s Chinese poetry in a way normally closed to those of us unable to hear German and make sense of it. All the explanatory notes and parallel translations in the world cannot make up for a grasp of what is being sung. I felt liberated by this.

Semyon Bychkov is well served by his excellent WDR orchestra and the camera spends enough time on them for us to note their absorption in the task. This is the same orchestra that gave us that wonderful Shostakovich symphony cycle conducted by Barshai and they are just as good here. Bychkov misses some of the heights and depths of this score. I miss the precipitous collapse into the abyss half way through the final song, I also miss the growling basses to which Decca give full attention on their ancient 1952 recording. In exchange we have pictures and the atmosphere of a live concert. It is almost a shock when the final despairing notes die away and, after a typically respectful pause from all concerned, the clapping erupts behind one. The surround recording is not so wide ranging as one might get on CD but the space makes up for any slight dynamic restrictions. The visual image is quite excellent and the camera work unobtrusive. If only the BBC would learn the lessons of this disk, no distractions, no announcers bursting in with babble, no star interviewers, just concentration on, and respect for, some great music brilliantly performed.

Rush out and buy it, it costs less than half a decent seat in the Barbican, the acoustic of the Köln Philharmonie is better, you get a free film thrown in and encores are immediately available. As I said at the start, gorgeous!


Dave Billinge



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