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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1909)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor), Gerhild Romberger (alto)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivn Fischer
rec. March 2017, Palace of Arts, Budapest

With so many performances of Mahler’s supreme masterpiece to choose from – and Vladimir Jurowski’s reading, with the same tenor as here, has recently been released – at least one of them is bound to be a safe recommendation. Or is it? There seems to be, in every recorded performance, something that somebody, somewhere, will not like. It is certainly the case with my own favourite, but more of that later. Let me first describe this performance from more than three years ago.

If Das Lied von der Erde is a phenomenal challenge for both soloists, the tenor has a particular trial: both power and stamina are needed to make himself heard above the orchestra and to stay the course. Any fine Wagnerian Heldentenor will have at least part of what is needed, but Mahler was also a composer of Lieder, so vocal finesse and detailed attention to the text are also required. In the first song alone there are countless appeals to the tenor to sing quietly, always in response to the text. Robert Dean Smith is, for the most part, as successful in this work as any tenor I have heard, and more successful than most. He has the power needed, and is also a sensitive singer who responds to the text and does his best to respect the composer’s dynamic markings. It’s a pity, then, that he sounds so effortful in the delicate chinoiserie of the third song: even the final phrase is given out in a direct manner. Ivn Fischer’s view of the song rather lacks affection too, so maybe it was a joint vision. The fifth song, however, where the tenor plays the role of a drunk – complete with a sentimental passage where he is moved nearly to tears by a bird singing! – is quite superb from both singer and orchestra, the most difficult passages admirably in tune.

For many years, when choice was limited, the recorded performance most frequently recommended, even spoken of with reverence, was that by Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I have never quite been able to buy into that view, much as I love Ferrier’s voice in other repertoire. As an example, nobody listening to her performance would imagine that the very first phrase in the second song is marked pianissimo; indeed, soft singing is rather in short supply throughout. Gerhild Romberger is more attentive to the composer’s markings, and it pays dividends. For all the beauty of the voice, however, as well as the singer’s attention to the score, there are times when the spirit of the music seems to elude her. In this second song, the finest interpreters inject something special into the phrase ‘Mein Herz ist mde’; a little later, when we learn that loneliness frequently brings her to tears, some conviction is lacking. Later still, however, in the entreaty to the sun to dry those tears, Romberger opens up splendidly to provide a broad and moving conclusion. She finds a certain coy flirtatiousness in the second song, as she describes the beautiful maidens plucking lotuses on the riverbank, and this is most attractive. She is no more able than any other singer to do more than gabble in the cruelly low-lying faster section, where Fischer startles the listener by launching his particularly rapid tempo three bars before the composer asks for it and before we are used to. Any mezzo’s contribution to Das Lied von der Erde stands or falls by the long, final ‘Abschied’. Everything is beautifully executed here, but again Romberger seems to hold the emotional content of some passages rather at arm’s length. The performers pay great attention, however, to the frequently cited line ‘Ich suche Ruhe fr mein einsam Herz’ (I seek peace for my lonely heart), with its poignant response from the first clarinet. The final pages of the work are also very affecting.

Adam Fischer’s reading of the work strikes me, overall, as rather brisk. This is not a question of tempo, as in most cases timing is comparable with other key performances – though many take a minute or so more over the ‘Abschied’. It’s more a relative unwillingness to allow much flexibility of pulse, as well as a rather forthright approach to articulation and phrasing. The accentuated treatment of the orchestral interlude, heralding Spring, in the first song, is a good example of this. There are many other moments, however, where one can only admire this outstanding conductor’s Mahlerian insight and wisdom. The recording is very fine, though Mahler took pains to give the glockenspiel a fair amount to do, especially in the first song, much of which is barely audible. The voices are placed quite forward in the aural picture, especially Romberger’s and especially in the ‘Abschied’, where she occasionally covers important phrases from the orchestra. This is doubly a pity as the woodwind principals are absolutely outstanding, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as a whole, one of the world’s very finest, makes a glorious noise.

Finding the ideal recorded Das Lied von der Erde is a near-impossible task. If you are willing to go back half a century you will find in Christa Ludwig a mezzo more involved with the text than is Romberger, whose performance gives considerable pleasure none the less. Ludwig is partnered with Fritz Wunderlich, skilfully supported by the engineers in the more heavily-scored passages. I know of no finer realisation of the relation between music and text than his. This version will be the choice for many, though others will be discouraged by Klemperer’s rather straight-faced reading. Janet Baker is the mezzo on at least four recorded performances. I have not heard them all, but she is sublime with Haitink, a Philips recording rather let down by a squally James King. There are days when I find her even finer live with Kubelik on Audite, and Waldemar Kmentt is altogether more satisfying. Simon Rattle’s performance with the Stuart Skelton, Magdalena Kožen and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has been well received, but strikes me as less distinctive than other recent performances, Jonathan Nott’s, for instance, from Bamberg (Tudor). That performance, however, uses Mahler’s sanctioned option of a baritone instead of the mezzo. The argument about contrast of vocal timbre must carry some weight here, but the listener will decide, and for that the quality of the singing will be an important factor. Leonard Bernstein’s reading, recorded in April 1966 and originally issued on Decca, has James King in better voice than was later the case with Haitink. Otherwise, I have never heard a singer draw out meaning from the words, and that with the utmost tonal beauty, as does Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Bernstein is his incomparable self, inspiring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to playing of supreme passion and refinement.

William Hedley
Previous review: Brian Wilson

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