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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1911)
Stuart Skelton (tenor); Thomas Hampson (baritone)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 26-29 September 2007. DDD/DSD
SFS MEDIA 82193600192 [63:20]
Experience Classicsonline


I was very much looking forward to hearing the Michael Tilson Thomas (hereafter MTT) recording of Das Lied von der Erde. It is a much loved work from a conductor with a growing reputation as a sensitive Mahler interpreter. My first run-through left me feeling slightly disappointed but a second, more critical hearing leaves me much more inclined to view this as a serious challenge to established favourites.
 

I’m sorry to say that Kathleen Ferrier’s classic recording with Bruno Walter is ruled out of court for me: heresy though it be, I simply do not like her voice. Perhaps it’s because my formative years were spent in Blackburn, where she was something of a local hero – she’d recently died tragically young and just about everybody with any musical pretensions claimed to have had a hand in discovering her talent when she was working at the telephone exchange. I’m interested to see that Tony Duggan in his very valuable overview of recordings of this work, which should be read in conjunction with this review, had reservations about this recording, though for very different reasons. 

Of all available versions, Janet Baker’s 1975 Philips recording with the Concertgebouw and Bernard Haitink comes pretty close to the ideal, even if James King in the tenor role is not quite Baker’s equal. The timings on this Philips recording are generally slightly broader than on the new SFS version. Overall, Haitink is, surprisingly, a minute slower than Klemperer’s account on EMI (GROC 5668922).


 

Baker/King/Haitink

Skelton/Hampson/MTT

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde

8:15

8:27

Der Einsame im Herbst

10:28

9:31

Von der Jugend

3:10

3:16

Von der Schönheit

7:34

6:57

Der Trunkene im Frühling

4:26

4:25

Der Abschied

31:11

30:39

The opening of Das Trinklied has to be a bold statement as, indeed, it is in all three versions. The tenor is rather cruelly exposed in that he has to enter within a very few bars at high volume; the danger is that he will sound too bold, with declamatory turning to stentorian. This happens to some extent in both the Haitink and MTT versions, but is more of a problem with King, who sounds just a little over-parted throughout this first movement. Perhaps it is his tendency to come close to shouting that led Haitink to a slightly faster tempo than MTT in this movement when he is mostly a little slower elsewhere. 

In this opening movement there is little doubt about the superiority of Fritz Wunderlich on the Klemperer recording: I couldn’t better John Quinn’s observation that “he consistently sings a lovely, musical line. His diction is excellent and every note is hit securely in the middle, no matter how high the tessitura.” (See review). 

MTT is just that little less emphatic than Haitink and Stuart Skelton is that little less declamatory than King. At first listening I was inclined to think the opening of this movement slightly overblown in the new SFS version but comparison with King and Haitink is very much in MTT’s favour: both are experienced and sensitive Mahler interpreters but MTT has a slight edge here. Skelton is capable of some quiet and sensitive singing where it is appropriate, as it frequently is in this movement, though he is capable of sounding urgent, too, as at the end of the movement when the ghostly figure of the ape leads into the poet’s advice to drink the wine while there is time. 

Der Einsame is a much more reflective movement and I don’t find it a minute too long at Haitink’s tempo, largely due to the success of Baker’s singing – thoughtful without being sentimental; indeed, with plenty of power where needed. Baker’s voice has just the right edge here – plangent without being mournful. 

MTT employs Mahler’s alternative of a baritone in this movement. Our tendency to expect a mezzo mainly derives from Bruno Walter’s choice at the work’s premiere and the fact that he employed a mezzo in each of his recordings, including his CBS remake with Mildred Miller and Ernst Häfliger (Sony Great Performances 82876787522) another of my benchmarks. The contrast between the male and female voices certainly works better for most listeners, especially when the tenor and baritone don’t sound too different, as is the case on Simon Rattle’s recording and, to some extent, on the new SFS version. 

Though MTT is a minute faster overall for this movement, he does allow the music – and his soloist – time to breathe. Thomas Hampson certainly captures the reflective mood of this movement, but memories of Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig on the Klemperer recording are not quite effaced. No-one quite matches the plangent edge to Baker’s voice in this movement. 

In Von der Jugend King again fails to match Wunderlich on the Klemperer recording – again he is too declamatory, as if his very life depended on what he sings. It’s not merely that he sings Mahler as if it were Wagner, he sometimes comes close to shouting. In compensation, however, Haitink’s tempo here is much closer to my ideal than Klemperer’s 3:43 – as JQ says, this is the one movement where Klemperer’s reputation for slow tempi is justified. 

MTT, too, at a tempo not markedly different from Haitink’s, seems to get this movement right and once again Skelton achieves a degree of delicacy in describing the pavilion of green and white porcelain and the other wonders of this movement. The description of the motionless surface of the pond brings an especially delicate edge to Skelton’s voice. No contest here – Skelton and Wunderlich make King sound coarse. 

Hampson sounds a little plummy at the opening of Von der Schönheit but soon settles into a fine performance. If I weren’t so besotted with the quality of Janet Baker’s voice, I might even admit to preferring MTT’s slightly faster tempo here, especially in mid-movement, before returning to capturing the reflection of the sun in the bright water every bit as sensitively as Skelton captures the similar image in the previous movement. The orchestral playing at the end of the movement is especially delicate. 

In Der Trunkene King largely redeems himself so that the contrast with Baker’s sensitive singing in Der Abschied does not sound too much of a contrast, though the moods of the two movements should – and do – sound very different. 

In the new version the orchestra captures the drunken mood perhaps slightly better than Skelton, who is more effective in the dreamlike section: Mir ist als wie im Traum. For once I think King slightly the better interpreter of this movement; both singers throw off the final words, Lasst mich betrunken sein, with bravura but without shouting. 

In the finale, Der Abschied, matters are again much as they were in Der Einsame – a very sensitive performance from both Baker and Hampson, with Baker having just a slight edge and Haitink’s marginally slower tempo giving the music an iota more space to breathe. At 31:11 the Baker/Haitink version of the finale might look too long on paper, but the broad tempo works extremely well. 

As in Von der Schönheit, I could be very pleased with this new account were it not for the ghosts of Baker, Ludwig and, to a lesser extent, Miller in my head. And, for all my disparagement of the Ferrier-Walter version, there is the pathos of hearing a singer for whom this truly was a farewell. MTT’s and Haitink’s tempi are not that far apart and the closing pages here are every bit as magical as on the Eloquence CD, with the final ewig hanging eternally in the air. Like LSO Live on their recent Mahler recordings, SFS remove the final applause – I’d have liked some of it left in. I’m sure it was rapturous: it deserved to be. 

Das Lied has to hang together as the vocal symphony that it is in all but name. Already under a sentence of death from the heart problem which had been discovered some years previously, Mahler had a superstitious dread of writing a numbered ninth symphony – something which no-one had achieved since Beethoven. In the event, he did manage a ninth and even composed enough of a tenth for Deryck Cooke and others to have produced a credible completion. 

At Haitink’s hands the work does hang together as a symphony, as it does also for Klemperer. Tony Duggan rather underplayed the virtues of the Haitink, though he did concede that purchasers need not hesitate to obtain this version. Neither Haitink nor Klemperer attempts the kind of symphonic synthesis that some have found in Ormandy’s version on budget-price Sony – in any case, Mahler’s symphonies often burst the bonds of the four-movement format – nor does MTT, but he does achieve a degree of coherence that makes this new version the equal of those classic accounts. The San Francisco Chronicle, quoted on the sfsymphony.org homepage, spoke of the assurance and dynamism of this interpretation of Mahler’s late style, which aptly sums up my own response to the recording. 

I don’t find King too much of a liability but if you want Baker without King, go for her BBC Legends performance under Leppard (BBCL42432 – note the change of catalogue number and increase in price since TD’s overview) or, better, her live version with Waldemar Kmennt and Rafael Kubelík on Audite 95.491, which Tony Duggan recommended in glowing terms:

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. (See review). 

The Philips ADD recording still sounds well, even in the ambi-sonic remix on the Eloquence CD – I know that some hearers dislike such tinkering with the sound, but I have never found it disconcerting. The new SFS recording is more immediate – but not too close – and lifelike, even in stereo; the difference is noticeable in both loud and quiet passages, but it doesn’t put the older Philips out of court. There is little evidence of audience noise on the new live recording to spoil even the quietest passages, such as the end of Von der Schönheit. The excellence of the recording may well tip the balance for those who don’t mind paying a little more than for the budget-price Philips Eloquence or the mid-price EMI, especially for those with surround sound for whom the SACD version will be an added recommendation. 

The Eloquence CD comes without any notes other than bare movement listings and times. New listeners really do need a guide to the music and, above all, the texts and translations of the poems from Hans Bethge’s collection. One needs these texts to appreciate the way in which Mahler matches his settings to the exotic imagery of the Chinese poems. 

The SFS packaging, by contrast, is elaborate and luxurious – a little too elaborate, since the CD and booklet fit so very tightly into a cardboard outer case that it is hard to extract them. It’s a little like some Hyperion CDs where the booklet is so generous that it’s hard to get it back into its case: the new release of Handel’s Parnasso is a case in point. 

The Baker/Haitink version is available on Eloquence 4681822; I’d advise you to buy it fairly quickly, as these original European-sourced CDs are being slowly deleted and there is no guarantee that Australian Eloquence will replace them. Otherwise the same recording is to be had on a Duo set with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Kindertotenlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (4540152). Listening to this version again for comparison has, if possible, endeared it to me even more. Conversely, I am now inclined to rule the Miller-Häfliger-Walter version out of court. 

Choose the Eloquence for Baker and Haitink and its budget price, the EMI for the excellence of Klemperer and both soloists, the Audite for Baker with a better partner, or the new San Francisco version for its all-round virtues and the quality of the recording. You might even consider pairing it, as the best available baritone version, with one of the older mezzo recordings.

Brian Wilson


 


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