Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1909) [63:31]
Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo); Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
rec. November 1992, Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden and November 2002, Konzerthaus, Freiburg
German text and English translation provided
HÄNSSLER CLASSICS CD 93.269 [63:31]
This recorded performance of Mahler’s masterpiece has a curious provenance. The three tenor songs were recorded in 1992, but the mezzo songs were only recorded ten years later, and in a different location. I can find no indication that the performance has been previously available, so one can only wonder why getting on for nine years had to pass before it was released. The hybrid nature of the performance leaves one feeling uncomfortable, and so it should. But I only looked at the recording dates after listening to the disc for the first time, and can affirm that nothing in the performance or the sound alerted me to anything untoward. All the same, it shouldn’t work. That it does work, and triumphantly, gives pause for thought.
The performance opens just as it should, the short introduction a near-perfect blend of impetuosity and breadth. Throughout this movement, and throughout the work, Michael Gielen demonstrates a natural feel for the ebb and flow of the Mahlerian pulse. His instinct for pressing on or holding back seems unerring, especially since he invariably does so on those occasions that the score specifically demands it. Jerusalem is magnificent. The role requires a full heldentenor voice, but also, and crucially, the more intimate and delicate qualities of a Lieder singer. Jerusalem has both, and his performance of these songs is one of the very finest I have heard. Listen how much he makes of the words in the phrase beginning “Ein voller Becher Weins” at 3:07 in this first song, and how much more meaning he extracts from the words and the music than even the finest of his rivals in the quieter passages of the fifth. If he shouts a little at the end of this song, and if he leaves the climactic word “Lebens” in the first song a bar too soon (7:12), his inspired and inspiring singing of the rest will persuade us happily to forgive him.
On her own terms, Cornelia Kallisch is very fine. She manages the key moments particularly well. In the second song, for example, at the words “Mein Herz ist müde” (4:57) she makes us share the weariness of her heart, and her sudden pianissimo for the following phrase is very affecting indeed. Her duet with the first oboe a page or so later, stark and bleak, is another high point. Of course the mezzo’s big challenge is the long, final movement, “Der Abschied”, and Kallisch acquits herself very well here. The long final chapter, beginning at the words “Er stieg vom Pferd” (20:48), produces some inspired singing, and the closing pages are suitably inward and lonely, her final, murmured “Ewig” seemingly emerging from silence. There is some vocal strain from time to time in the upper register, and the voice has a tendency to spread under pressure. This is a pity, as vocal purity is everything in these songs.
The orchestral playing from the South-West German Radio Orchestra is superb. Honourable mentions go to the first flute and the first clarinet for some particularly eloquent playing, especially when accompanying the mezzo. The orchestral sound is both rich and analytical, this the result of Mahler’s writing, but also an indication of the conductor’s skill. Gielen’s pacing of the work is masterly, making the most, for example, of the banal central section of the fourth song. He understands and supports his singers, and only in the third song do I find his reading rather too fast and hectic, rushing Jerusalem, and the whole somewhat lacking in porcelain delicacy.
The tenor songs, the orchestral playing and the conducting make this a very desirable disc indeed. That judgement could almost stand as it is, but the mezzo is the crux of the matter. Cornelia Kallisch, unfortunately for her, has some formidable rivals in this work, and her singing is marginally less involving than the finest of these. I wouldn’t want to upset Kathleen Ferrier’s many admirers, but hers in not my favourite assumption of the mezzo role. Janet Baker, on the other hand, with Haitink or, especially, with Kubelik on Audite, is another matter. Brigitte Fassbaender is also very fine, with Giulini on DG, a reading that finds quite different things to say about Das Lied that do many other performances, and one that should be in every collection. There are some mavericks in there too, notably Horenstein’s marvellous performance on BBC Legends, with what was then called the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. Mahler sanctioned a baritone in place of the mezzo, and Bernstein’s Viennese performance on Decca, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is another that any serious Mahler collector should have. Released a month or so earlier than that version, nearly forty-five years ago - good grief! - is the one that, in my view, comes nearest to perfection, with Fritz Wunderlich as fine as Jerusalem, Christa Ludwig a wonderful, heart-felt mezzo, and authoritative conducting, albeit conducting that might not suit everybody, from Klemperer. This reading from Gielen, in spite of its curious and frankly counterfeit timescale, now takes its place amongst my favourite readings of this eternally satisfying work.
A marvellous reading overall, though not without the occasional passing weakness, and with one curious and questionable characteristic