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Gustav MAHLER(1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde [58:40]
Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Waldemar Kmentt (tenor)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
rec. 7 June 1967, Konzerthaus, Vienna

It’s quite remarkable that this performance of Das Lied von der Erde was the one and only time that Carlos Kleiber conducted the music of Gustav Mahler. He was renowned for his narrow repertoire, perfectionism and irascible temperament. As the years passed, he demanded more and more rehearsal time than was the norm with other conductors; this in order to refine and perfect his interpretations of a limited number of works.

In this 1967 performance, he substituted for Josef Krips on the occasion of the fiftieth performance by the orchestra of the work. It was part of a Mahler Festival. The concert also included one of his favourites, the Symphony No. 33 by Mozart. For the performance, he had to forgo his insistence on a surfeit of rehearsal time and settle for four sessions. Yet the results, even by his exacting standards, of such meagre preliminaries, are outstanding.

By 1967 the Vienna Symphony Orchestra had a long tradition of performing Das Lied. This had been begun by Bruno Walter in 1912, a year after the composer’s death. Up until the Second World War, performances emerged under the batons of such distinguished maestros as Zemlinsky, Fried, Schuricht, Krauss, Kabasta and Knappertsbusch. After 1945, it fell to the likes of Klemperer, Kletzki, Steinberg and Mehta to continue the tradition.

Kleiber’s performance of Das Lied von der Erde garnered some negative reviews at the time, and these may have been a decisive factor in the over-sensitive conductor’s never venturing down the Mahler path again. Yet opinions were divided, with one reviewer stating that he ‘had found a new Mahler conductor of which there are currently too few’. Sadly, it was not to be.

The performance has had several CD outings on fairly obscure and difficult to obtain labels, most notably on Memories (ME11065), which includes the Mozart Symphony No. 33, Nuova Era and Exclusive (EX92T53). I was fortunate to obtain the Exclusive CD several years ago but, comparing the sound quality with this new release definitely highlights its shortcomings. The Wiener Konzerthaus release has been newly restored and digitally re-mastered, and the improvement is outstanding. Now the sound is clearer and less cramped, which is especially noticeable in the orchestral part, where the various instrumental sections are thrown into sharper relief. On my Exclusive CD, the orchestra sounds recessed; here the re-masterings have achieved a much improved balance between players and singers.

Waldemar Kmentt (b.1929) was in his late thirties when this concert took place, and at the height of his powers. On entering the fray of Das Trinklied one immediately senses a forceful presence, where he projects a powerful, expressive sound. There’s great drama in his interpretation, with both exultation and pathos delivered. Whilst his tone is rich and full-bodied, in Von der Jungend it is scaled down to a lighter character and the mood is more upbeat. Kleiber points up the beautiful woodwind section, which has more definition in these re-masterings. In Der Trunkene, I love the moment when the voice and solo violin ardently blend together.

One tends to judge recordings of this work by the success of Der Abschied. Kleiber employs a brisk tempo (26:50) when compared with Baker/Leppard (31:10), Norman/Levine (32:15) and even Ferrier/Walter (28:20). Yet the version with Merriman/Jochum, which I rate very highly, adopts a pacing similar to Kleiber’s, clocking in at 26:54. I do not find Kleiber’s tempo a problem although it is irksome to some commentators. it is very effective and doesn’t linger or wallow. Indeed, one feels carried along by the narrative.

Christa Ludwig doesn’t achieve the emotional range and pathos that Ferrier brings to the score. Yet she employs beauty of tone and intelligent phrasing throughout. Walter’s studio recording is an otherworldly account, and remains my favorite. Ludwig made two recordings of this work: with both Klemperer and Bernstein.

The accompanying booklet in English and German provides a comprehensive survey of the work, the circumstances of how the performance came about, a section on the restoration process and a biographical portrait of the conductor. The CD is nicely presented in a smart, slim digipak.

For Carlos Kleiber fans and those wanting to admire the artistry of one of the greatest conductors of all time, this is essential listening.

Stephen Greenbank