Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908) [62:46]
Jane Henschel (mezzo); Gregory Kunde (tenor)
Houston Symphony Orchestra/Hans Graf
rec. live, 19-22 November 2009, Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas,
Song texts available on Naxos website
NAXOS 8.572498 [62:46]

Many of those who read MusicWeb International reviews will be, like the reviewers themselves, serious, even obsessive collectors. There are fourteen recorded performances of Das Lied von der Erde on my shelves, probably a modest number compared to some. The present performance, coming in at number fifteen, prompts the following thought: how many times in a year will I sit down and listen to Das Lied? Surely no one puts it on as background music? And how likely am I to choose this one next time, rather than Kletzki, Bernstein, Kubelik, Klemperer, Boulez or Gielen?

The title of the first song translates as “The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow”. The short orchestral introduction is very well done, but as the song progressed I felt that the basic pulse was too slow, robbing the music of some of its life. And though the basic message is a dark one, it is a drinking song after all, and there didn’t seem much of the tavern at this tempo. So I was surprised to find that most other performances take about the same time over this song, with only Klemperer, of all people, shaving just short of a minute off Graf’s timing of 8:41, proof that there’s more to it than tempo. The music seems strangely becalmed though, at several points, which it surely shouldn’t. I did warm to the singer, however. Gregory Kunde’s high notes ring out, and with a fair range of tone colour, bearing in mind the struggle he has to make himself heard above the orchestra. I found myself admiring him even more in the third song, where he phrases with more legato than is often the case. His account of the song is unusually relaxed and smilingly insouciant. The tempo seems just right too, as it also does in the fifth song, with the singer particularly attentive to those passages where birds are evoked, though with power enough on all those top As. There are tenors who find a bit more poetry here and there, and others who master the score’s demands with less vocal strain – Wunderlich, say, for the former; Siegfried Jerusalem for the latter. Although I find the opening song rather cool-headed, these accounts are as satisfying as many I have heard.

The mezzo songs are less successful. It’s not just that Jane Henschel rides roughshod over many piano and pianissimo markings – Kathleen Ferrier does the same – it is more that the voice is just not suited to this repertoire. The climax of the second song brings some glorious singing, but it might be Wagner, not Mahler. In the quieter passages one is always conscious of a singer aiming to “fill the house” and losing, thereby, much of the subtle detail of the score. She is not helped by a forward recorded balance, more forward, so it seems, than the tenor. In the difficult, low-lying faster passage in the fourth song this only serves to make her inevitable gabbling – I know of no singer who succeeds totally here – even more evident. There is a marked vibrato too, especially when singing above mezzo-forte. Above all, the singing lacks that inward quality – innigkeit – that the work demands. She is up against some formidable names – Baker, Ludwig, Fassbaender – and it is significant that the most successful of these are all outstanding Lieder singers. Sadly, Henschel just doesn’t get deep enough into the text, and fine though much of the singing is in “Der Abschied”, the end of the work leaves one dry-eyed. What a shame that one of the key moments, at the words “Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz” [23:55] should be ruined by this live performance’s sole instance of sour tuning.

My colleague Ralph Moore was pretty dismissive of this performance some weeks ago, and while I clearly enjoyed it a lot more than he did, I still wouldn’t recommend it unconditionally. I can find no fault with the orchestral playing; many of the wind solos are played with great character, and the overall tone is rich and full, even if it doesn’t sound like the Vienna Philharmonic. I like Hans Graf’s pacing of the work too, with the exception of the first song as detailed above. The recording is very clear, especially for a live performance. I was struck by dissonances and details in the orchestral parts that I hadn’t heard before, proof that the conductor and the sound engineers have gone about their business in a serious and capable manner. Keith Anderson’s insert note is very fine. As with most Naxos vocal releases, you have to go the website if you want to follow the words.

A word or two about other performances. Jascha Horenstein’s performance on BBC Legends is proof that you don’t need the biggest international names or an orchestra of world class to turn in a superlative performance of this work. Note, too, that at an even slower basic tempo, the first song can be at once sorrowful, impulsive and headily inebriated. Janet Baker, with Haitink (Philips) and even more so with Kubelik (Audite) is incomparable. I find Walter’s command of Mahlerian pacing and rubato more masterly on CBS in 1960 with Mildred Miller than in 1952 on Decca with Kathleen Ferrier. The performance conducted by Boulez (DG) is a revelation, and not only because one didn’t imagine Boulez capable of it. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca) give the most moving reading of “Der Abschied” that I know. As for this Naxos disc, I’ll be listening to it again, especially for the tenor, whose singing is individual enough to bring something new to many passages. Das Lied can stand many different approaches, and it’s probably Klemperer from 1967 on EMI, with Wunderlich and Ludwig, that I’d want with me if ever I found myself marooned on that desert island.

William Hedley

See also reviews by Ralph Moore and Dan Morgan (January 2012 Bargain of the Month)

There are many fine things in this performance, but the magnificent mezzo is miscast.