Only as recently as April my colleague Tony Duggan
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
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.
Recordings of the Century