Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908)
Věra Soukupová (contralto); Vilém Přibyl (tenor)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Neumann
rec. live, 20 May 1971, Prague Spring International Music Festival. ADD
Booklet in Czech and English; sung texts in German only
RADIOSERVIS CR0438-2 [56:03]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Píseň o Zemi (Song of the Earth) (1908)
Marta Krásová (alto); Beno Blachut (tenor)
Prague National Theatre Orchestra/Karel Šejna
rec. live, 29 May 1960, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague
Booklet in Czech and English; sung texts not included
These discs are available from Radioservis: Neumann and Sejna
Here we have two recordings of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, from two distinguished Czech conductors. I first heard a snippet of Neumann’s Mahler Sixth while browsing in HMV Bond Street many years ago, and it was so engrossing that I made a mental note to investigate further. Alas that never happened, so his Supraphon set of Nos. 1 to 9 is still on my wish list. As for Karel Šejna (1896-1982), the only recorded Mahler I’m aware of is the Fourth, with the Czech Philharmonic; that was also released by Supraphon. What separates this version from all others is that it’s sung in Czech.
Neumann’s recording comes from the Prague Spring International Music Festival, first held in 1946. Musical anniversaries play a big part in this event - 1971 marked 60 years since Mahler’s death - while the May 1960 recording date and venue for the Šejna disc suggests that too was an anniversary outing. Both feature well-known Czech singers; Neumann’s Věra Soukupová (b. 1932) and Vilém Přibyl (1925-1990) are most familiar to me from their fine Janáček recordings. Of Šejna’s soloists Beno Blachut (1913-1985) stars in one of my favourite recordings of the Glagolitic Mass, from Karel Ančerl and the CPO (Supraphon).
Introductions out of the way, what of the recordings themselves? Šejna’s performance is taken from Czech Broadcasting Company tapes that have been digitally ‘cleaned up’; also, the original mono sound has been synthesised into what the booklet calls ‘imitated stereo’. Even in its re-mastered form there’s no disguising the variable pitch and other sonic shortcomings. There are no such details about the Neumann disc, but it’s clear the engineering is not quite as sophisticated as that available to, say, the BBC in their live recording of Horenstein’s Song of the Earth from April 1972.
Initially, Neumann’s approach struck me as somewhat clipped, even brusque; also, the thin orchestral sound and recessed voices are hardly conducive to this most radiant of scores. Nevertheless, one adjusts soon enough, even if the next hurdle - the distinctive Slavic singing - may be harder to surmount. That said, Přibyl has always been a most ardent and fearless tenor, and he copes very well with the tessitura of the drinking song. He’s also surprisingly characterful in the quieter passages. In short, he sings with intelligence, which augurs well for the rest of this performance. Soukupová’s fast vibrato is more of an acquired taste, although she too sings with great feeling in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’.
What I miss most in Neumann’s account is the subtle shading and harmonic shifts in the orchestra, important signposts that are hard to discern in this backwardly balanced recording. The CzPO play well, and I found myself warming to Neumann’s way with the score. He certainly has a feel for the trembling landscapes of the piece, and there’s some lovely, liquid wind playing in ‘Von der Jugend’. That at least is very audible, and the strings have an echt-Mahlerian swoop as well.
Moving on, I concentrated much more on the orchestra than Soukupová in ‘Von der Schönheit’, that dry-as-dust climax a big let-down. Also, there’s more raspberry in the brass than I’m used to; that said, this is actually quite an appealing performance, sharpening my appetite for that Supraphon set. It’s ‘Der Abschied’ that’s the make or break movement, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Soukupová and Neumann are very affecting here. Certainly that evanescent shimmer is there - listen to those gurgling woodwinds and atmospheric harp swirls - and tempi are generally well judged.
There’s no substitute for intelligent singing, and that’s what Soukupová delivers here, aided and abetted by a conductor keenly aware of the music’s nodal points. His phrasing is a tad deliberate at times - halting, even - but it’s very effective. Only in the last ten minutes does that brusque quality return, and the air of raptness threatens to evaporate. True, it’s a fine line between limpidity and stasis; at least Neumann avoids the latter. As for the tam-tam it’s audible - just - but that matters less when Soukupová literally rises to the occasion. Janet Baker may dig deeper, but her Czech counterpart gave me goose bumps at the very end. A pity there isn’t more of a pause before the clapping starts, something that plagues so many live performances.
Earlier I felt this Song of the Earth would only be of dry, historical interest, yet it’s turned out to be a much more compelling performance than I’d expected. Indeed, if the balances were a bit better this would be a most desirable issue. Which, alas, is more than I can say for the Šejna recording. The aggressive start to the drinking song - not to mention those overemphatic pizzicati - is a good indication of what to expect. Despite the upfront sound the playing of the Prague National Theatre band is nowhere near as polished or idiomatic as that of the CzPO.
As far as the soloists are concerned, Blachut cuts a virile figure, but he yields to Přibyl when it comes to vocal dexterity and colour. Also, the Czech translation is somewhat unsettling, compromising Mahler’s careful matching of syllables and words to notes and phrases. While Marta Krásová is steadier than Soukupová - her voice becomes steely under pressure - she doesn’t have the latter’s inwardness. There’s a lot of tape hiss and extraneous noise from the audience, not to mention patches of instability and break-up; ‘Von der Jugend’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’ are particularly afflicted. Also, the orchestra migrates from one channel to the other at one point.
In the context of historical/archive material these things are to be expected, and matter less if the performance is anything special. In this case it isn’t. Krásová’s shrewish delivery in the fourth movement is especially crude and unidiomatic. I can’t help feeling that the music loses much of its shape and contour in translation, and that’s not what one wants in music that’s made with such care and subtlety. Needless to say Krásová’s farewell isn’t very inspired either, even though orchestral detail is clearer. That long, lofty line is missing, and Šejna’s reading is somewhat rough and ready as well. As for those unguarded and intrusive coughs …
In the illumination stakes Šejna is an also-ran, yielding to Neumann in every respect. Both have reasonable booklets, although Šejna’s shows more evidence of poor translation; neither is particularly informative, but then I suspect anyone interested in these issues wouldn’t bother with them anyway.
An intelligent, persuasive performance from Neumann; a crude and unmemorable one from Šejna.
Dan Morgan  

An intelligent, persuasive performance from Neumann; a crude and unmemorable one from Šejna.