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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09)
Mildred Miller (mezzo)
Ernst Haefliger (tenor)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, 18-25 April 1960. DSD
SONY CLASSICAL GREAT PERFORMANCES 828476 78752 2 [62:57]

 

Bruno Walter occupied a uniquely authoritative place in the performance history of Das Lied von der Erde. He conducted the première in 1911 and a quarter of a century later, in 1936, he made its first recording.
 
This reissue becomes the fourth recording of Walter’s interpretation in my collection. I already have the 1936 performance, recorded live in concert, in which he’s joined by Kerstin Thorborg, Charles Kullman and the Vienna Philharmonic (Dutton CDBP 0722). In 1952 Walter returned to Vienna to set down the legendary studio recording, again with the VPO, with Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak (Decca 414 194-2). In between came a 1948 live recording with the New York Philharmonic in which Ferrier was once again his female soloist – making her New York debut, I believe – and the tenor was Set Svanholm. This account is contained in the NYPO’s own-label boxed set, The Mahler Broadcasts, though a single-disc issue of the same performance is available from Naxos (8.110029). There’s also a 1953 performance, again featuring Svanholm, on Music and Arts (CD950), but I haven’t heard this.  
Whilst timings don’t tell the full story, a comparison of these four versions is revealing.

Movement
1936 
1948
1952
1960
I
8:21
8:07
8:39
9:30
II
8:29
8:35
9:13
9:48
III
3:02
2:53
3:00
3:08
IV
6:18
6:06
6:44
6:44
V
4:11
3:59
4:23
4:23
VI
26:41
27:33
28:20
29:04
TOTAL
57:02
58:05
60:19
62:57

These timings show, I think, quite a degree of consistency over the years on Walter’s part. It should be noted that the timing for ‘Der Abschied’ in the 1948 traversal includes some 13 seconds of applause. However, it will also be seen that Walter became slightly more expansive over the years, especially when it came to the wider canvasses of the first and last songs.
 
This present performance, his only stereo account of the work, was set down less than two years before his death. It coincided with his last NYPO performance of the work, on 15 April 1960. Oddly, however, in the live performance it was Richard Lewis who took the tenor role. I can only imagine that the switch of soloists for the recording came about for contractual reasons.
 
What we have here is a fine performance of Das Lied von der Erde though I must say that it lacks just a little of the tautness and urgency of Walter’s earlier accounts. It’s also not as shattering as some readings that one has heard. Haefliger is a sensitive tenor, though not as heroic in timbre as some I’ve heard, especially in the first song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’. In particular the phantasmagorical passage near the end of that song where the ghastly ape is spied isn’t quite as terrifying as it might be. There were occasions when I wondered if his performance as a whole would have come over so well in the concert hall rather than close up to the microphone. But he brings lightness and grace to the third song, ‘Von der Jungend’ and in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ his delicacy and lyrical style give pleasure.
 
I may as well be honest and say I can’t make my mind up about Mildred Miller. In many respects she sings very well but I can’t escape a feeling that her performance is somewhat cool or detached. She’s poised and touching in her first song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ and there’s much delicacy to admire in the orchestral accompaniment too. She does much of ‘Von der Schönheit’ well but I do wonder if she could not have been a touch more abandoned in the wild central section of this song.
 
Of course it’s the huge final song, ‘Der Abschied’ that is the touchstone for any performance of Das Lied von der Erde and there’s much to admire in Miss Miller’s rendition. But, of course, as well as the aforementioned Ferrier and Thorborg accounts one has also heard such great readings as those by Christa Ludwig and Dame Janet Baker. In the last analysis I don’t feel Mildred Miller matches such singers for intensity. Moments such as ‘Es wehet kühl’ and, at the other end of the emotive scale ‘Die liebe Erde’ are very well done here but the emotional achievement has been bettered by others. That said, other listeners may very well welcome the comparative restraint in Miss Miller’s singing and may enjoy, as I did, the lovely tone that she brings to the passage beginning ‘Ich sehne mich, o Freund’. She and Walter build this section up beautifully to the great outpouring at ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Leben.’ If that lacks quite the refulgence of a Baker it’s still impressive.
 
Walter conducts the NYPO with all the deep understanding that you would expect and he’s rewarded with some committed playing. In particular there’s a great deal of fine woodwind playing in ‘Der Abschied’ and, indeed, it’s in this song that the orchestra is heard to best advantage. I don’t think this can be a top recommendation for Das Lied von der Erde but it’s a version that all Mahler enthusiasts will want to hear. The sound has come up very well and the booklet contains the notes written for the original LP issue, which are good but, sadly, no texts. Of the other Walter recordings, the 1936 and 1948 versions are probably more for specialist collectors. The 1952 version, on the other hand, still merits its iconic status, showing Walter’s interpretation in marginally better light and featuring much more characterful soloists than is the case with this present release. That would remain my first recommendation for Walter in this work but this 1960 version preserves his interpretation in better sound and, despite some reservations, this welcome reissue is very well worth hearing.

John Quinn


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