Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1909)
Iris Vermillion (contralto); Keith Lewis (tenor)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Giuseppe Sinopoli
rec. January 1996, Lukaskirche, Dresden. DDD
German text and English, French and Italian translations included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON PRESTO CD 453437-2 [63:52]
First, the good news: the orchestral and recorded sound here is ravishing and the playing of the Staatskapelle sparkles. Sinopoli conducts beautifully, directing a big, bold account which balances the richness and depth of the orchestra’s Klang with the precision and brightness of individual instrumentalists’ contributions. I cannot fault the choice of tempi, the control over phrasing or the balance between the movements. Only in the closing pages of this great work do I find there to be a lack of – what is it? – tension, atmosphere, occasion; something vital is lacking. I have never heard a more cursory conclusion to what should be a magical apotheosis; its very perfunctoriness is baffling.
The problem for me is in the choice of solo vocalists. There is a very strong, and very extensive field of competitive recordings and the contribution of Iris Vermillion must inevitably be measured against that of singers of the calibre of Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Maureen Forrester and Agnes Baltsa. For me, Vermillion is not anything like the true contralto she is billed as, nor even an especially mellow mezzo-soprano: her tone here lacks all sensuousness, has little distinction, inclines to unsteadiness and is devoid of heft in its lower reaches. Where is the voluptuous caressing of notes we hear from those aforementioned artists? There is no velvet in the timbre and her voice turns too fruity under pressure. The final “Ewig” is about as ethereal as the last call in my local.
Tenor Keith Lewis is very precise, light and musical with a good cutting edge to penetrate thicker orchestral textures but his essential sound is constricted with a fast vibrato that tends to flutter. What should be a moment of terror in the first song when he narrates the scene about the ape conveys minimal Angst, as his top B flat on “des Lebens” is lost in the noise. He is not bad and preferable to a lumbering, thick-voiced Heldentenor, especially if such a singer is fading, but in the end the sound is too unheroic. I prefer to hear a voice-type like Kollo at his best or lighter-voiced tenors like Kmentt,
Richard Lewis and Wunderlich (for Klemperer), who have made a much more convincing job of their songs.
I fear that this is not a recording to which I shall return.