Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1909) [65:59]
Jadwiga Rappé (mezzo); Piotr Kusiewicz (tenor)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice/Michael Zilm
rec. live 10 November 1989, Grzegorz Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland
Sung texts provided in German, Polish and English
DUX 0810 [65:59]

A lover of all things Polish – and that definitely includes Polish cuisine! – I was eager to hear this performance. It is a recording of a concert, and there are a few noises here and there, thumps and fumbles such as you hear at any concert but probably don’t want to hear on record. The audience is reasonably quiet, but there is some coughing, even from the platform. One hears the audience between movements too. There is applause at the end, which is a real pity, but it is restrained as seems to be the custom in those countries where the uncivilised “Bravo!” boor has not penetrated. Potential purchasers should be aware of all this: the only indication that it is a live recording appears in small type on the back of the CD box, and you have to open the package to know that the performance is twenty-two years old.

The work opens in spectacular fashion, and one is quickly taken by the tenor’s forthright style. He stumbles over the words at the beginning of his second phrase, but this is live and he wasn’t quite in the swing of things yet. His German pronunciation is imperfect, which will doubtless trouble other listeners more than it does me. In the same spirit I prefer to draw attention to his ringing top B flat on the word “klingen” than to the moment’s inattention that causes him to anticipate the altered note the first time he sings the words “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” The gorgeous orchestral passage evoking Spring is a bit ordinary, with much less freedom of pulse than with Bernstein, for example, or even Boulez. The climax of the song, though, is hugely exciting and powerful.

Jadwiga Rappé has a most beautiful voice, more Kathleen Ferrier than Janet Baker, but not really quite like either. Her singing is sensitive and, for the most part, alive to the words, and her German is much better than that of her colleague. She is recorded very forward, and when in duet with this fine orchestra’s excellent wind soloists, even in pianissimo, she rather covers them. The climax of the second song, beginning at the words “Sonne der Liebe”, is once again superbly done, the orchestra marvellously sonorous and the soloist passionately engaged. What a pity, then, that her closing line, “mild aufzutrocknen?”, is just marginally flat, as is, let it be said, the same phrase earlier in the song, to the words “Mein Herz ist müde.”

Kusiewicz does his best to tone down a big voice in the delightful third song, and by and large he is successful. I hope the conductor quickly recovered from the shock administered when his soloist manages just in time to correct the wrong note at the beginning of the phrase “Ihre seidnen ärmel”! The tempo is perfectly judged, the orchestra plays deliciously, and overall it is difficult not to respond positively to this rather endearing evocation of a porcelain world.

The conductor’s relatively unhindered view of the score is noticeable again in the ravishing postlude to the fourth song, where rather more rhythmic freedom and affectionate phrasing would have been welcome. Rappé acquits herself well here, with the low-lying phrases of the faster central section better managed and more musical than many other, much bigger names, have sometimes achieved. There is an exclamation at one point – “Hei!” – and not all singers have been able to make this convincing in the time Mahler allows. Rappé has her own solution: she misses the word out, and takes a most needed breath instead. It seems a good idea to me.

The third and last tenor song positively invites a declamatory style, and Kusiewicz gives it all he has. The result is very exciting, the singer vehemently defending his right to drunkenness at the very end.

Rappé is very fine in the long, final song, “Der Abschied”, inward and pensive – though hampered by the close balance – and ardent and passionate where required. Curiously the key phrase “Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz!” is delivered simply, with little added feeling, and singing quietly, barely accompanied, she is again sometimes marginally flat. But from the passage preceding the long orchestral interlude, beginning for the soloist at the words “Ich sehne mich”, right up to the close, everything is marvellously done by both singer and orchestra.

This work is monstrously difficult to bring off. The faster, fully scored passages pose their own problems, but who would be brave enough to sing that final word, “Ewig”, with so spare an accompaniment, and with those interminable silences? The word is uttered seven times: does it matter if Rappé, perhaps misunderstanding a gesture from the conductor, sings the final “Ewig” three bars too soon? I think it probably does, and that there are arguably too many such minor accidents to justify near-immortality on disc for this particular live performance. I enjoyed it enormously though – whilst not blind to its weaknesses – and will certainly come back to it many times, but there are many other performances that make safer top choices. The curiously hybrid reading I reviewed recently, conducted by Michael Gielen would be one (Hänssler), and others include Janet Baker with Haitink (Philips) or Kubelik on Audite, Brigitte Fassbaender with Giulini (DG), Horenstein (BBC Legends), Bernstein on Decca, with Fischer-Dieskau, or Klemperer (EMI) with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig a probably unrivalled pair of soloists.

William Hedley

A live performance, imperfect, but very affecting and well worth hearing.