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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894)
Jo Vincent (soprano)
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Holland Festival, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 12 July 1951. Live radio aircheck.

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In what must be one of the most beautifully produced re-issue packages that I have ever seen, Guild have given us a splendid treasure in this reissue of the Otto Klemperer’s 1951 Mahler 2.. Audiences flocked from all over the world to the Mahler festival from which this performance derives. It is most notable for the presence of the great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier, who at the time was beginning to show symptoms of the cancer that was to take her life at a tragically young age just two years later.

One of the great singers of the twentieth century, Ferrier has now passed into mythology, but unlike other artists who have died young, there seems to be little if any evidence that  the halo that now shines around her memory is anything but absolutely deserved. Ferrier was particularly known for her interpretations of the music of Mahler, which at the time of her death, was still only rarely performed in concert halls and even less often recorded. It would take until the 1960s and the devoted and driving personality of Leonard Bernstein to bring Mahler’s music into worldwide acceptance.

Although he is not a conductor that immediately leaps to mind at the mention of Mahler, Klemperer was one of the composer’s early and significant champions, and brings the music to life with not only great exhilaration, but also with a certain transparency. He is careful with the thicker textures, seeing to it that the appropriate instruments sing when called for. Even in the loudest passages there is a complete sense of balance. I was also pleased with Klemperer’s tempo choices, never so slow as to be lugubrious.

Both soloists turn in outstanding performances, Ferrier cutting right to the heart of the texts, presenting the idea of the afterlife with such radiance and hope. It is a shame that Jo Vincent, an exemplary singer in her own right, is given so little recognition in this release, but then again, the point here is to sell the Ferrier name.

Sound quality is on the whole very fine considering the source material. On occasion we are hit with the repeated spin sound of a less than flawless record; I am assuming from the sound of the background noise that these are acetate discs and not vinyl or shellac. There is a bit of drop out here and there, and the big choral entrance is merely a wash of sound, with there being no text comprehensibility whatever. This is to be expected given the age and quality of the source discs.

What is most impressive about this and nearly every other Guild release that I have ever encountered is the superb documentation. This is the way that all classical CDs should be presented; with detailed essays on the artists and the music, factually accurate and scholarly written, but without the academic mishmash and the blow by blow descriptions of the music. I will confess that I found Richard Caniell’s essay on Ferrier’s life and work just a bit over the top in its gushing admiration of the artist, but he is entitled to admire whomever he pleases, and there is nothing wrong with being a bit effusive on a subject that one finds exciting.

I was also thrilled, given that I am a pretty big fan of early radio, that the announcer’s commentaries were left intact, giving us that wonderful “War of the Worlds” feeling that can only come with placing oneself in the past, in front of an old radio, thus gaining entrance into the theatre of the mind.

This will not be a release with appeal for the casual listener. The sound quality, exceptional as it is under the circumstances, will be bothersome to those not specifically interested in historical recordings. But for those of you who are historical enthusiasts, jump on this beautiful release. It is a treasure well worth the cash outlay.

Kevin Sutton

see also Review by Christopher Howell


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