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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Eugenia Zareska (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum [16:37]
Nan Merriman (mezzo-soprano)
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum [15:51]
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892, 1899-1900; revised 1910) [52:33]
Margaret Ritchie (soprano)
Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09) [60:53]
Nan Merriman (mezzo-soprano); Ernst Haefliger (tenor)
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
rec. 27 November 1946 & 16 December 1947; Kingsway Hall, London (Gesellen – Zareska); April/May 1952 (Symphony); 8-12 December, 1956 (Gesellen - Merriman); 3-6 December, 1956 (Das Lied), Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Mono
PRISTINE CLASSICAL PASC498 [69:06 + 76:44]

This Pristine Classical set usefully gathers together all the commercial Mahler recordings made by Eduard van Beinum. All but one of them were made with what was then the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, an orchestra with which van Beinum had an association lasting some three decades until his premature death in 1959. The odd one out is his first recording of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. This was set down with the LPO in sessions spread over 1946-47 which coincided with the start of the conductor’s brief spell as the orchestra’s chief conductor (1947-49).

It’s interesting to have two versions of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Apparently, the 1946/7 traversal was Decca’s first Mahler recording. In his earlier review my colleague Ralph Moore questioned the designation of the two singers as contraltos. I have seen the Ukrainian Eugenia Zareska (1910-1979) described as a mezzo elsewhere, not least on a Barbirolli recording of Mahler’s Second symphony (review). In the case of the American, Nan Merriman (1920-2012) I can’t recall seeing her designated as anything other than a mezzo so I’m going to follow Ralph’s lead and list both ladies as mezzos. In any case, neither of them displays a contralto timbre here.

That said, there were instances in the Zareska performance where I was troubled by a distinct lack of body affecting her top notes. This is particularly noticeable in the second song and, disappointingly, in the ‘Lindenbaum’ episode of the final song. That apart, Zareska sings well but I have a firm preference for Merriman. There are no issues with her upper register but the principal reason for my preference is that while Zareska sings expressively her American colleague seems to delve even deeper into the songs and as a result conveys more. In both recordings van Beinum is an alert and sympathetic conductor. I fancy that he’s more animated in the Merriman recording where the second song, ‘Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld’ is more spirited than was the case in the earlier version while the following song, ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ is more dramatic in 1956. It may well be that the greater depth that I hear in the later performance is not wholly due to the singer; in 1956 van Beinum was working with an orchestra that he knew much better than he knew the LPO of 1946/7.

A few days before setting down Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in December 1956 Nan Merriman joined tenor Ernst Haefliger for van Beinum’s recording of Das Lied von der Erde. Both singers subsequently recorded Das Lied with other conductors. Merriman sang for Eugen Jochum, I believe, though I’ve not encountered that performance. Haefliger was one of Bruno Walter’s soloists in his 1960 recording (review). In this van Beinum performance both singers impress. Haefliger is heroic in the face of Mahler’s demands in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ and his tone is always pleasing. He offers light, characterful singing in his second song while ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ is expertly articulated. Merriman offers singing that’s full of feeling in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ as well as an excellent sense of line. Her performance – and van Beinum’s – of ‘Der Abschied’ may not be the most shatteringly intense on disc but it’s still very good indeed. Merriman sings with no little feeling and van Beinum shapes the music’s long paragraphs very well.
I enjoyed the reading of the Fourth Symphony very much. The opening material is pert and alert, van Beinum adopting a brisk core tempo. Elsewhere in the movement, however, van Beinum is ready to adopt a suitably yielding approach to tempo. His reading of the music is smiling and extrovert. In the scherzo Mahler’s irony and sardonic humour is well brought out. I admired skilful solo work from the solo violinist and the woodwind principals, Van Beinum keeps the music light on its feet and the slower Ländler episodes are affectionately done. Throughout the symphony one is reminded that the Concertgebouw Orchestra of the 1950s was an orchestra that knew how to play Mahler and that’s particularly evident in this movement. The slow movement is spacious and very well played. In the finale Margaret Ritchie is a very capable soloist though the timbre of her voice doesn’t suggest youthful innocence. Van Beinum leads a nicely turned account of the movement. I found this a very pleasing performance of the symphony.

This set contains some very good performances. It’s worth remembering that when these recordings were made in the 1950s the Concertgebouw Orchestra was probably the most experienced Mahler orchestra in the world. His music was nowhere near as ubiquitous as is nowadays the case but under the leadership of Willem Mengelberg the Concertgebouw had developed a strong Mahler tradition. Van Beinum worked closely with Mengelberg, first as his assistant and then as co-conductor of the orchestra, so he will have imbibed the Concertgebouw Mahler style and tradition. That shows in these performances, as it did in a live recording of the Sixth that I reviewed some time ago.

The sources for these transfers are LPs with the exception of the 1946/7 Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which has been transferred from 78s. In the latter case there’s some very faint surface hiss audible but this is no distraction at all. It seems to me that Mark Obert-Thorn has done an excellent job. The sound, especially in the case of the 1950s recordings, has plenty of body and a great deal of detail is audible in all four recordings. He has done Eduard van Beinum proud with these excellent transfers.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore




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