Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09)
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); Set Svanholm (tenor)
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York /Bruno Walter
rec. live Carnegie Hall, New York, 18 January, 1948
XR Remastering

This live recording was made four years before the famous Decca studio version, by which time Kathleen Ferrier had already undergone treatment for the cancer which prematurely ended her life so cruelly. Thus, despite the beauty of that later recording, she is in fact in richer, more secure voice here in 1948, with a considerably stronger top G and even more effulgence in her tone. She is wrongly described as a mezzo-soprano in the lukewarm “New York Times” review of the first concert - and Ferrier’s New York debut - three days earlier, but the depth and mellowness of her timbre here refutes that categorisation; she was a true contralto and sings majestically, the voice often coming across as really large and powerful, despite the fragile delicacy of her quiet singing in passages such as “Mein Herz ist müde”. The magical “ewig…ewig” of the extended concluding movement is so steadily intoned and her singing is demonstrably superior to the recording four years later, good as that is.

Bruno Walter is of course of impeccable pedigree as the conductor of the 1911 premiere of this work. He made three commercial recordings and tended towards increasingly relaxed tempi as time went on; this is just as grand as the Decca recording but a tauter, brighter, more driven performance – and it must be said that the New York Philharmonic plays rather more confidently and securely than the VPO; the strings are fuller and the horns are especially good despite the odd blip.

Set Svanholm is more of an echter Heldentenor than Julius Patzak and has all the notes, although even this Tristan is taxed and audibly strained by his very demanding music. Given that Patzak was already 56 years old when he recorded for Walter and Svanholm is here only 43, one may all the more admire the astuteness with which Patzak husbands his resources, compared with Svanholm’s effortfulness, but both make much of the text and manage to prevail against big orchestras, which Walter made no effort to rein in.

The sound is really very good for its vintage and provenance on acetates; there is very little audience noise and despite the inevitable presence of some hiss and papery crackle, I found it to be rather more immediate than the later studio recording.

This performance has been previously briefly available on both the Naxos “Immortal Performances” and the “Documents” labels, but I have little doubt that this Pristine remastering is the one to have now – and indeed I think I favour it over the celebrated 1952 studio account for the energy of Walter’s conducting and the youthful vigour of Ferrier’s singing.

Ralph Moore

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