Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1907-8)
Jane Henschel (mezzo); Gregory Kunde (tenor)
Houston Symphony/Hans Graf
rec. live, Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas, 19-22 November 2009
NAXOS 8.572498 [62:46]

A performance of Das Lied von der Erde stands or falls by whether a perfect balance between the quality of the conductor, the two soloists and the orchestra prevails; there must be no weaknesses in any of those four components. The work also now has such a rich and successful recording history that even a decent, unexceptionable performance such as this one stands in danger of appearing colourless by comparison.

Thus two competent singers can sound very ordinary indeed in comparison with singers of the calibre of mezzos Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig and Agnes Baltsa and tenors Fritz Wunderlich, Waldemar Kmentt or Richard Lewis, who are all near-ideal exponents of this music. Henschel sounds decidedly old-lady-ish in tone; a bit tremulous, with a slightly acidic top which does not sound of a piece with her hollow lower register. She barks the declamatory sections of “Von der Schönheit” and both loses resonance and gains a wobble in the quieter passages. Kunde, like too many previous tenor exponents, sounds stretched, somewhat harsh and dry of tone with a tendency to bleat; there is no doubt that his voice is nowhere near as sappy as when he recorded “Benvenuto Cellini” eight years ago. He attempts expressiveness by injecting some messa di voce and falsetto effects which do not quite come off and end up sounding clumsy. He is in fact closest in timbre to Karajan’s Kollo, who for me compromises that otherwise estimable recording.

The playing of the Houston Symphony is warm and expressive but there is no bloom on their sound. They are skilled but nowhere near as sumptuous-toned as their rival big-name orchestras and Hans Graf’s conducting generates no sparks. His tempi are moderate, indeed barely different from any of my half dozen favourite versions but his phrasing is dull. He generates no great meditativeness in “Der Einsame im Herbst” and little sense of mystery or tension in “Der Abschied”. Only Tennstedt takes substantially longer over that last song but he was a master of sustaining the long-breathed line. For comparison, I played several rival versions and was especially struck by how much more interesting Klemperer, Reiner and Kubelik made those yearning opening bars before the mezzo enters – and struck again by how distinctive and arresting their singers are when measured against Henschel. In fact once I had put another version on, I was reluctant to go back to this Naxos recording, so immediately absorbed was I by the superior predecessors.

The sound is adequate but, like the live performance itself, somewhat under-stated and lacking immediacy. The usual excellent notes by Keith Anderson and biographies are provided, but no libretto.

This is by no means a bad recording, but suffers from being a perfect illustration of how the best is the enemy of the good – or at least, the satisfactory.

Ralph Moore

Suffers from being a perfect illustration of how the best is the enemy of the good – or at least, the satisfactory.