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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1909) [60.47]
Julius Patzak, tenor
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto
Three Rückert Lieder (1901) [14.43]
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Recorded in the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, May 1952
Restored from vinyl pressing(s) by Mark Obert-Thorn ‘ADD’
NAXOS 8.110871 [75.30]


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Comparison issues:
Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, with Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter (Decca 414 194-2)
Mahler, Three Rückert Lieder, Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter (Decca 433 477-2)

This classic recording is a precious record of Ferrier’s singing, and certainly belongs on every vocal collector’s shelves; certainly those of every Mahlerian. Legitimate questions have been raised as to whether this would be Mahler’s favourite version if he were here to give recommendations; I say probably not. I would never part with my Kirsten Thorborg/Charles Kullman Das Lied. Maureen Forrester also sounds pretty good even compared to Ferrier. Patzak’s contribution in Das Lied ranges from good to awful. Even his best cannot compare with the best of Kullman, Dermota, Wunderlich or even Richard Lewis. In Der Abschied, Ferrier’s tragedy is a fully adult emotion, whereas Thorborg is able to capture the hurt, bewildered, child-like ‘why do you have to go away Mommy?’ feeling. Thorburg even manages the child-like, momentary delight at the beauty of the rising moon, whereas Ferrier’s morbidity is unvaried. It will hopefully be at least five years before my cancer gets to the point where Ferrier’s was then; as that time draws nearer I may find this recording more personally relevant.

The ascription ‘ADD’ which is on the liner notes to the Naxos disk may mislead. This is actually an AAADD production, since there are two additional analogue transfer processes in the chain. The ADD CD issued by Decca made from the original master tape has in the chain three analogue transfer processes: from air pressure wave to electrical signal, electrical signal to tape recording, then to tape playback, and finally to digitisation (Assuming of course that the master tape was not copied at any time). In the Obert-Thorn transfer there are two additional transfers, from master tape to disk-cutter and disk playback to digitisation. Each of these five transfers degrades and changes the signal detectably. In addition, Obert-Thorn has used digital processing to remove surface noise — vinyl scrape and clicks-and-pops — and my practised ear can detect the residual artefacts of these both.

The question is, are these degradations really noticeable? I have to say not very. In a direct A/B comparison, I can hear them, probably you couldn’t. Some people will inevitably think the transfer sounds better. Obert-Thorn has done an exceptional job, as usual. If you have the original Decca CDs, of course you’ll keep them and be glad. The original Decca CD of Das Lied is still available on for £7, and this Naxos transfer sells there for £5. I can’t imagine anybody buying the Naxos just to save £2, but maybe that’s OK by you. But if some day the original is not available, then this transfer will do just fine. Additionally, the Rückert Songs are not available now from any other source, so for them we have no choice, and we can be very satisfied with this transfer, secure in our assurance that the transfer sounds very much like the original.

In the Naxos liner notes we are told that ‘There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid range of many "authorised" commercial issues. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings...’ Philosophically speaking, I don’t think the transfer engineer owes anything to the ‘original tone of the old recording’ but only to the music. My philosophy is that if the original can be improved upon, it is the duty of the transfer engineer to do it. For instance, in restoring some Fernando Valenti original recordings I was able to remove from the background some hum and air conditioner fan noise present in the studio, and hence end up with a transfer that was noticeably clearer and more transparent than the original. In restoring a Mahler orchestral song, I was able to remove the sound of a dropped clipboard from a quiet passage. In restoring a very dry Westminster Lab recording, I did it with - and without reverb, and I think the ‘with’ is better, but I offer you the choice to play it either way. And I restored the clipped reverb tail from the end of the tape so the sound now dies smoothly away to complete silence. So, sometimes a Shoemaker restoration might be better than the original or an Obert-Thorn restoration, at least in these specific ways.

Paul Shoemaker

Mark Obert-Thorn replies:

I think Mr. Shoemaker is reading a bit too much into that "blurb" about my restoration philosophy. The point was merely to differentiate my approach from those who add a great deal that is not in the original recording. I certainly do try to remove extraneous noises and hum, and add reverb (sparingly) when the originals sound so boxy as to draw attention away from the music. Indeed, in the very disc he reviewed, I corrected an editing error in "Um Mitternacht" (Ferrier seemed to sing "mitternacht-cht" at one point) which was in every previous "official" Decca LP and CD transfer!

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