Time was when Naxos recordings of core repertoire would be considered cheap and cheerful, but hardly designed to compete with the best in the catalogue. That has long since changed, with a growing number of discs that, while still sold at the super-budget price point, are every bit as desirable as established or more expensive performances. Certainly, Antoni Wit’s Mahler Eight must be at or near the top of the list of recommendations for that work, proof that great Mahler recordings don’t all emanate from Vienna, Berlin or Lucerne.
The Houston Symphony Orchestra and their Linz-born music director Hans Graf are both unfamiliar to me, as are the soloists, but as I’ve already hinted that’s hardly an issue where this label is concerned. Indeed, listening to a number of more illustrious recordings in preparation for this review I was reminded of just how difficult it is to alight on an ideal – or near ideal – version of this elusive score. Either the mezzo isn’t up to the sustained demands of that long goodbye or the tenor is overstretched by Mahler’s taxing tessitura; and even if the soloists are up to snuff, the articulation and pacing of the music itself may be problematic. And then there’s the recording quality which, while not the key issue, plays an important part in one’s perception of – and response to - this multi-hued score.
Of my selected comparisons two – Raymond Leppard on BBC Radio Classics 9120 and Bernard Haitink on Philips 468 182-2 – feature the limpid tones of Dame Janet Baker. The clarity and directness of her vocal style is always pleasing, and while I don’t share Tony Duggan’s out-and-out enthusiasm for Baker/Leppard and the Alfreda Hodgson/Jascha Horenstein version on BBC Legends 4042-2, I like them rather more than my colleague Marc Bridle does. In particular, Baker’s Der Abschied
with Leppard – recorded at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1977 – has a high goose-bump count, and while she sings with characteristic commitment for Haitink she lacks the intensity of feeling that makes the Leppard disc so memorable.
Kathleen Ferrier for Bruno Walter (Decca 466 576-2) and Christa Ludwig for Otto Klemperer (EMI 5 66892 2) are her main rivals, although Ferrier’s artless, somewhat old-fashioned, delivery doesn’t appeal to me. Heresy, I know, but I’ve often wondered whether Walter’s link to Mahler and Ferrier’s early death have given this recording a lustre it doesn’t always deserve. And among more recent recordings Cornelia Kallisch sounds warm but all-too-often uninvolved on Michael Gielen’s otherwise admirable version (Hänssler 93.269). Of the men, John Mitchinson – for Horenstein and Leppard – struggles with Mahler’s near-falsetto writing, while Haitink’s James King – placed quite far back - is rather more secure, if a little too generalised for my tastes. Walter’s tenor, Julius Patzak, is full-bodied but a trifle staid, heldentenor
Siegfried Jerusalem and the agile Fritz Wunderlich – for Gielen and Klemperer respectively – both fresh and virile.
How does the Houston recording fare in this mixed company? In Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde
Gregory Kunde sounds pleasing enough, although his voice is less appealing under pressure; at first I felt the orchestra was rather backwardly balanced, but it suits the intimate scale of this performance. The real revelation, though, is Graf, whose reading of the score is very impressive indeed, becoming more insightful as the piece unfolds. He can’t quite match Klemperer for sheer amplitude and nuance, but he does find an astonishing lucidity that works especially well in the trembling loveliness of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’.
In that song mezzo Jane Henschel sings most hauntingly of the loneliness and the transience of life, her delivery discreet but always subtly inflected. In many ways she is the antithesis of Baker, who sometimes strives a little too hard for effect, notably in her recording for Haitink. And while Henschel doesn’t efface memories of Ludwig here, I was captivated by her glowing, unforced response to Bethge’s texts, notably Von der Schönheit
. I particularly liked her honeyed lower registers, but again it’s Graf’s lightness of touch and natural rhythms that beguile the mind and ear.
Kunde may be overstretched as the drunkard but his delivery has a youthful charm that’s entirely apt; that said, Jerusalem and Wunderlich negotiate those treacherous vocal lines with aplomb, their innig
moments more finely calibrated. In terms of sonics the Naxos disc may not be as weighty or tactile as Gielen’s, or as atmospheric as Leppard’s, but at least it isn’t as rough and ready as Horenstein’s. As for the much-lauded Philips sound for Haitink, it isn’t nearly as refulgent as I remember it. The EMI recording for Klemperer is big and bold and, in its GROC version at least, hardly shows its age at all.
And despite initial caveats about the Naxos soundstage I have to say the convulsive gong shudder at the start of Der Abschied
is just electrifying, ushering in half-an-hour of sublime music and even more sublime singing. For me, Ludwig is sans pareil
here, a perfect match for Klemperer’s stoicism, but I can assure you Henschel is just as commanding of mood and line. This is an abendrot
like no other, the trembling air suffused with the scents of loveliness and decay. The Houstonians really do capture the evanescence of this music very well indeed; as for Graf, he maintains a sensible and steady pulse throughout, achieving a rare blend of poise and penetration as well. Thankfully the audience is very quiet, and there’s no applause at the end to break this deep, deep spell.
Is there an ideal recording of Das Lied von der Erde
? Probably not, but as the talents of this newcomer are so prodigious and its faults so minor I’d say this one comes pretty close.