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KATHLEEN FERRIER MEMORIAL
Gustav MAHLER
(1860-1911)

Symphony no.2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [74:51]
Jo Vincent (soprano), Kathleen Ferrier (alto)
Amsterdam Toonkunstchoir
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. live, Holland Festival, 12 July 1951
complete broadcast with commentary in Dutch and German
GUILD GHCD 2210 [77:08]


Earlier reviews

Jonathan Woolf
Robert Farr

Guild have already issued this performance and reviews (from 2002) can be found above. It certainly says much for their idealism that, having discovered a better sound source than those formerly known, instead of just shrugging their shoulders and saying "if only we’d known …", they have produced a new edition. They have also taken the opportunity to correct the date, previously given as 6 July, and since I don’t find the excess of apostrophes of which my colleague Jonathan Woolf complained, the booklet has evidently been revised too.

I must confess I haven’t heard the previous issues, but I can report that though the sound is constricted – rather as you would have heard it on a small but goodish medium-wave radio set of the day – detail and balance in the first three movements is remarkably clear. It would be idle to pretend that you get more than a rough impression of what’s going on in the cataclysmic parts of the finale – even modern technology is tested to the limit here – but the sound doesn’t actually buckle under and packs a considerable punch. There’s the sort of husky sound to the strings which I’ve always associated with excessive de-hissing and de-noising, but since a technical note assures us that all such intervention has been kept to the minimum precisely to avoid such effects, evidently this was a characteristic of the original tape.

That there is so much clarity except under extreme pressure says much for the performance itself. Klemperer conducts a remarkably "modern", proto-Boulezian interpretation, rigorously phrased and balanced with a sort of no-nonsense spring to the rhythms that put me in mind of neo-classical Stravinsky. It is remarkable that the orchestra whose strings had been, under Mengelberg, the unrivalled masters of "vocal" portamento and flexible phrasing has been scrubbed as clean as a whistle except where Mahler has actually marked "glissando" in the score. These are all scrupulously observed, implying that such devices are not an inherent part of the Mahler style, as they seem to be when Bruno Walter (or Barbirolli or Kubelik) conducts this music, but applied externally, in quotation marks as it were, as elements of parody. In keeping with the modern conception, the temperature is fairly cool except in the apocalyptic moments; here Klemperer is truly fearsome.

Unfortunately, the brass playing later on is not on the level of the rest. There has been some good quiet trumpet playing in the first three movement but for some reason the brass chords at the opening of "Urlicht" are loud and crude, suggestive of a second-rate Salvation Army band – the first trumpet has a vibrato which I’ve never previously associated with the Concertgebouw. Klemperer is generally unmagical in this movement so Kathleen Ferrier’s admirers - no other performance is preserved - are going to wish they could hear her in a different context. Ferrier didn’t enjoy working with Klemperer ("he shouts like a madman") but sings with rock-steady professionalism and of course her timbre is unmistakeable. Her later interventions are brief and tend to be drowned by the insensitive trumpet-playing. Jo Vincent sings well without leaving any particular impression.

Mahler 2 was very much a Klemperer speciality and at least eight versions exist, beginning with a Sydney performance from 1950. From the same year as the Concertgebouw version was his first studio recording, for Vox, with Steingruber, Rössl-Majdan and the VSO. Ten years later came the renowned 1961 Philharmonia recording for EMI, with Schwarzkopf and Rössl-Majdan. From 1963 comes a live VSO performance with Vishnevskaya and, once again, Rössl-Majdan, and another Philharmonia one with Heather Harper and Dame Janet Baker which is out on Testament. EMI have challenged themselves by issuing a live version from Munich with Bavarian Radio forces and Harper and Baker again as soloists. A later New Philharmonia taping (1971) with Finley and Hodgson is listed but may not have been issued. Those who wish to study Klemperer’s interpretation - still among the most imposing ever - will presumably choose the classic EMI studio issue, in good stereo sound for its date and in the running for a top version anyway. For those wishing to supplement it with a version from Klemperer’s slightly wilder earlier days (about five minutes shorter), the presence of Kathleen Ferrier and the fact that it is live seem to make this the most enticing of the three possible choices. For fans of Ferrier, whatever the problems this is the only performance they’ll ever hear.

Richard Caniell’s presentations in these Guild historical issues are usually informative and by no means afraid to criticise aspects of the performances. In this case his adulation of Ferrier has led him to love "not wisely, but too well". Try this for size:

"Through Ferrier’s art, Mahler’s genius, this performance of the Resurrection, the following and final occasion in which she sang good-bye to her beloved earth in Das Lied von der Erde, we know that she and Mahler, together, have conquered darkness with light, sordidness with beauty and all the brawling, warring aspects of human existence with a higher truth which exists outside of time. Ferrier passed away, we pass on after her, but Mahler’s music and Ferrier’s voice – these are imperishable".

The trouble is that the mockers and debunkers are out on Ferrier – notably David Hurwitz, but I’m not always an out-and-out admirer myself – so it seems a pity to throw a hostage to fortune in this way.

Christopher Howell

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