This performance of Das Lied von der Erde has been issued before.
It appeared on the BBC Classics label around 1995.
The two soloists
were both hugely experienced exponents of their respective roles.
Both also have appeared in previous BBC Legends issues of this
work. John Mitchinson was the excellent tenor soloist in Jascha
Horenstein’s searching account of the work (see review)
while Janet Baker appeared in a version, which I have not heard,
conducted by Rudolf Kempe (BBCL 4129-2). That does not appear
to have been reviewed on MusicWeb but I seem to recall it received
a slightly muted reception from other critics.
I bought the BBC
Radio Classics issue of this performance when it first appeared
so in this instance I was in the position of revisiting the
recording when appraising this BBC Legends disc. After completing
my listening, while searching out other MusicWeb reviews to
link into my own thoughts I was fascinated to find that the
Horenstein and Leppard versions had been the subject of combined
essays by Tony Duggan (see review)
and by Marc Bridle (see review),
who was much less enthusiastic about both recordings. I may
as well come clean at once and say that I’m firmly in the Duggan
camp. I arrived at that view some years ago through listening
to both versions and by comparing them with the dozen or more
other recordings of the work that I own. However, my view was
strengthened in recent years when I’ve had the opportunity of
conversations with John Mitchinson. He has sung Das Lied
countless times, possibly more often than any other tenor, and
for many conductors, so he knows a thing or two. He is emphatic
in his appreciation of both Jascha Horenstein and Raymond Leppard,
even though they take different views of the piece.
Leppard’s is neither
as weighty nor as tragic a reading of the score as is Horenstein’s
but that’s not to say that he doesn’t get under the skin of
the work. To my ears he leads a thoroughly convincing performance
and the BBC Northern players respond very keenly to his direction.
Both soloists are on excellent form. Some
may feel that John Mitchinson doesn’t have the sweetest of voices
but he has the requisite heft for this cruelly taxing role and
he also has the perception and technique to fine his voice down
for the more intimate passages. This should be no surprise for
he is a singer who was as adept in, say, English song as he
was in big roles such as Tristan or Waldemar. The first song,
‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’, makes pretty unreasonable
demands on the tenor soloist but Mitchinson is right on top
of the role, completely secure and confidently ringing in the
many high lying stretches. He and Leppard make the passage depicting
the vision of the ape very graphic. He brings delicacy and lightness
to his second song, ‘Von der Jungend’, offering some characterful
singing. His last contribution, ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’,
is almost as demanding as the first one in terms of tessitura
but Mitchinson responds ardently. Just as admirable, however,
is the finesse at “Ein Vogel singt im Baum” before he picks
up the sense of abandon once more for the last two stanzas.
Though it’s unfair
to tenors in general, I suppose a performance of Das Lied
will always be judged by the contribution of the mezzo soloist,
for she has the lion’s share – or should that be lioness? –
of the music. Before we hear Dame Janet in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’
Leppard and his players pave the way with admirable delicacy
in the orchestral introduction, where the wind soloists excel.
From the start it’s evident that Dame Janet is in fine voice.
She identifies with the music completely and colours her voice
to enhance the words – at “Ein kalter Wind”, for example. I
don’t feel she’s quite as successful in ‘Von der Schönheit’.
Perhaps this is the song that suits her least well for it requires
lightness of touch and I feel that, on this occasion anyway,
her approach is a bit too serious.
There need be no reservations about the rendition
of ‘Der Abschied’, however, though it is a minor irritation
that the doom-laden tolling of harp and gong at the very start
is not quite together. At Dame Janet’s first entry she and the
solo flute create a wonderfully withdrawn ambience. Later, at
“Es wehet Kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten”, she’s intense and
inward and once again the principal flute plays beautifully.
At “O Schönheit!” the singing is heartfelt but is sufficiently
controlled to avoid excess. The long orchestral interlude between
15:34 and 20:41 is shaped powerfully by Leppard and then, from
“Er stieg vom Pferd” onwards, Dame Janet’s singing is of a very
special order indeed. Hearing her communicating these pages
so vividly, and doubtless inspired by the presence of an audience,
I wonder if there is another singer who has so completely identified
with this music or who has projected it more earnestly. There’s
a moving element of warmth in her voice at “Ich wandle nach
der Heimat!” but she saves her highest degree of eloquence for
“Die liebe Erde allüberall”, which is a moment of real fulfilment,
as it should be.
This is a very good
performance of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring two soloists
who display mastery and complete understanding of their respective
roles and who are accompanied by a supportive and perceptive
conductor. The sound quality is good, reporting plenty of orchestral
detail and giving the voices just the right degree of prominence.
The sound is not
so satisfactory on the accompanying performance of the Alto
Rhapsody. It’s generally acceptable but it’s not as open
as the sound of the Mahler performance and on at least one occasion
– for a few seconds after 5:48 – the orchestra is somewhat distorted.
Dame Janet and Sir Adrian went on to make a studio recording
for EMI in December 1970 (see review)
and though Dame Janet’s singing is perhaps a little more intense
in places during this live account I don’t think it displaces
the EMI performance, which is in much superior sound, for one
thing. There’s a touch more expansiveness about this live reading;
the music lasts for 13:21 compared with 11:44 on the studio
version. Here the BBC Symphony Orchestra play well for Sir Adrian
and Dame Janet gives a fervent but poised reading of the solo
part. Unfortunately the contribution of the BBC Men’s Chorus
is less distinguished. The sound they make is rather cloudy
– though that may be because they’re somewhat backwardly recorded.
More seriously, at their first entry – when the Big Tune is
first heard (7:36) - they drag and they’re behind the beat for
quite some time. The fault is not repeated when the Tune is
restated. This is a welcome filler but the main attraction of
this disc for collectors must be the Mahler.
As usual BBC Legends
refuse to provide texts and translations in the booklet. Purchasers
are directed to the Medici Arts website, from where the text
and translation of the Mahler can be downloaded – the title
of the work is given erroneously as “Song from the Earth” –
but this is nowhere near as convenient as having the words printed
in the booklet and the words of the Alto Rhapsody don’t
seem to be there. This lack of texts is a blemish on an otherwise
highly desirable release.