Here is one of the great "lost" Mahler
recordings now properly restored. When Rafael Kubelik made his
outstanding studio Mahler cycle in Munich for DG in the 1970s
(463 738-2) he made no version of "Das Lied Von Der Erde"
to go with it. This was puzzling for such a great Mahlerian who
even went to the trouble of recording the Adagio from the Tenth
Symphony as part of his cycle. We knew Kubelik played the work
because this performance had taken place in Munich in February
1970 with Kubelik’s Bavarian Radio Orchestra and first appeared,
minus a minute or two in the fourth movement and in poor sound,
on a pirate label in the 1980s. A number of Kubelik’s studio Mahler
recordings were made after "live" performances in the
same hall at this very time (as other Audite releases have shown)
so why didn’t Kubelik, the orchestra and his two soloists go on
to record it for DG under studio conditions? I wonder if the answer
lies in the presence of Janet Baker. At that time Baker was an
exclusive EMI artist. Were plans afoot for her to record it with
Kubelik but these came to nothing because of that? I know she
later recorded the work with Bernard Haitink for Philips but that
was some years later when perhaps contract problems were resolvable.
Whatever, I know that ever since I heard the pirate version of
this performance I had hoped that at some point someone would
gain access to the Bavarian Radio master tapes and release them.
That is what has now happened and this recording of Mahler’s late
masterpiece now joins a nearly-completed "live" Mahler
cycle conducted by Kubelik from various times during his Munich
tenure released by Audite.
For me Janet Baker has always been the greatest
interpreter of the female/baritone songs in this work. Her Philips
recording with Haitink on Eloquence (468 182-2) was long
awaited even when it appeared and did not disappoint her admirers.
In my survey of recordings of this work I believe I paid that
version the attention it deserved singling out Baker for special
praise. However even then I felt her interpretation on a BBC Radio
Classics release taken from a later "live" performance
in Manchester and conducted by Raymond Leppard was even better
– deeper, more profound. The problem was that in no way could
the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra compare with the Concertgebouw,
or her conductor Raymond Leppard compare with Bernard Haitink
even though hearing Baker "live" seemed to add something
to her interpretation. This was partly why when I heard the "pirate"
of this Munich version I hoped for an official release. This too
is "live" with all the benefit that brings but this
time we have in Kubelik a Mahlerian of equal stature to Haitink
and in the Bavarian Radio an orchestra that comes close to the
Concertgebouw in depth of response to Mahler’s sound world. Matched
with Waldemar Kmentt she also appears with a tenor who is, for
me, superior to James King on the Haitink version and John Mitchinson
on the Leppard, fine though both are.
The key to the greatness of Janet Baker in this
work is her total identification with the words. Her care for
every detail of them means she lives the part where some merely
describe it. Her view of the music seems from the inside out.
In these movements one thinks of Baker, Ludwig and Fassbaender
among the women and Fischer-Dieskau among the men. In the second
song you are made to feel what it is to be lonely rather than
simply have loneliness described to you. Technically too she is
on top form as the wild horses passage in "Von der Schönheit"
proves. At no point in this crazy music does Baker ever give the
impression that she will come to grief, even though the tempo
adopted by her and Kubelik is suitably swift. They had one shot
at this in front of an audience and it comes off triumphantly.
Listen also to the delicacy of the description of the young girls
swimming in the same movement. Finally in the "Abschied"
her range, emotional and musical is total. Everything is covered
here from the passages of sterile enunciation to the overwhelming
emotional grandeur of the climaxes and all points between subtly
graded. Overall this is one of those interpretations that contain
depths that will take years to plumb.
Of all the great recordings of this work I know
there has, for me, so far only been one where I feel that two
of the greatest interpreters are matched on the same recording.
These are Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich for Klemperer on
EMI. But now with this release I think there is a second since
Waldemar Kmentt is just as convincing in his songs as Janet Baker
is in hers. In fact I believe Kmentt can be compared with Wunderlich,
Peter Schreier and Julius Patzak as the finest interpreters in
the tenor songs on record. In "Das Trinklied" Kmentt
is towering, challenging the music to break him in the dramatic
sections, but emerging unscathed from them. The "Dark is life,
is death" refrain has a world-weary depth that few save Schreier
and Wunderlich can match and the "ape on the grave"
climax is fearless in his nightmarish delivery. Like Baker, Kmentt
can also walk the delicate passages of this work with equal effect.
His description of the arrival of spring in "Der Trunkene
im Fruhling" is magical and his word painting in "Von
Der Jugend" piquant and sharp.
Kubelik’s greatness as a Mahler conductor was
his ability to cover the whole range of the music from uncomplicated
nature painting to calculated high drama and seem equally at home
everywhere. He attends to all details of this music with care
and discretion, always taking care of the bigger picture too,
balancing it with the inner detail. Notice the woodwinds during
the funeral march in "Der Abscheid" where every strand
is clearly delineated, or the effect of getting his mandolin to
play tremolo in the same movement marking up the chinoiserie
in a most evocative and unique way. He also recognises what I
have always believed to be a crucial aspect of this work. That
the two soloists are the equal partners with the conductor and
that he is there to support them. With great soloists like these,
that is easier. But countless examples of his support for his
soloists are apparent in this performance along with the preparation
of his orchestra to act almost as a third soloist. The purely
instrumental passages in "Der Abschied" reveal Mahler
conducting of the highest order. Listen to the birds passage and
also to the deep bass growls before the funeral march.
The sound recording leaves little to be desired.
It is hard to tell it was made over thirty years ago for radio
broadcast. I like the balances between woodwind and strings and
the warmth of the acoustic around the orchestra and soloists in
the chamber-like sections. The balance between soloists and orchestra
are exemplary also. Even the distinctive acoustic of the Herkulessaal
is made to sound perfectly suited to the music. You can hear everything
and with solo players in the orchestra as eloquent as the two
singers are this is important and adds another plus to this disc.
In sound terms this more than matches the best versions of this
work and musically it is the equal of Klemperer on EMI (5 66892
2), Sanderling on Berlin Classics (0094022BC) and Horenstein on
BBC Legends (BBCL 4042-2). All very different though each one
of those comparable versions are in their interpretative approach.
Indeed, this Kubelik recording has the effect of taking many of
the virtues of all those great recordings and stitching them into
a new and deeply satisfying whole.
This is one of the all-time great Mahler recordings:
a classic version of this inexhaustible masterpiece in every way.
Indeed I think there are none to surpass it, perhaps only to equal
it. You will be moved, delighted and changed by it. I cannot recommend
it too highly as it goes to the top of my list for this work.