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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde [65:16]*

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 [13:51]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo); *John Mitchinson (tenor)
*BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/*Raymond Leppard
BBC Men’s Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. *22 February 1977, Free Trade Hall, Manchester; 6 November 1968, Royal Festival Hall, London
BBC LEGENDS BBCL4243-2 [79:19] 
Experience Classicsonline

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.

John Quinn


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