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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-9) [61:23]
Gerhild Romberger (alto)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. March 2017, Palace of Arts, Budapest. DDD/DSD.
Reviewed as 24/96 stereo press preview.
Also available on SACD and in a variety of 16- and 24-bit and DSD stereo and surround download formats.
Texts and translations included.

No sooner has Ralph Moore updated the late Tony Duggan’s much-visited Mahler survey with his thoughts on Das Lied von der Erde here – than Channel Classics bring us this Iván Fischer recording. It’s another example of the Fischer brothers, splendid Mahlerians both, competing with one another; Ádám Fischer’s recording for AVI of Das Lied, actually made later than Ivan’s, was hailed by Paul Corfield Godfrey as a splendid experience – review – and by Michael Cookson as committed and highly enjoyable – review.

Just to remind us how difficult it is to keep up, with recordings arriving, like London buses, in bunches, the Ádám Fischer recording didn’t make it onto Ralph Moore’s survey. There’s also a new live recording from Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin RSO due on Pentatone, which I haven’t yet had a chance to hear, though, with Sarah Connolly as one of the soloists, it looks attractive (PTC5186760).

Two vintage recordings have shaped my love of this work – from Janet Baker, with Bernard Haitink, and from Christa Ludwig with Otto Klemperer. Admittedly, Baker is less than perfectly partnered by James King on the Haitink recording, but Ludwig is very ably seconded by the superb Fritz Wunderlich on the Klemperer. There is another Baker recording, this time live with Rafael Kubelík, on which she is better partnered with Waldemar Kmentt, and I’m happy to second Ralph Moore’s admiration for that and the Klemperer. I ended my review of a recording by Michael Tilson Thomas with those three recordings as my top choices, back in 2008, and they remain the benchmarks for the two Fischers.

Ludwig and Kmennt also recorded Das Lied with the VSO and Carlos Kleiber live in 1967 (WS007). The orchestra’s own label transfer makes the best of a bad job, but there are still patches on this recording which make it hard to listen to – DL News 2014/13.

Of Tony Duggan’s original recommendations, the classic Kathleen Ferrier, with Bruno Walter, though widely admired, is a non-starter for me. That’s not just because everyone in my home town of Blackburn claimed to have discovered her back in the 1950s; the timbre of her voice is the problem for me.

Iván Fischer scores in two important respects over his brother: his recording comes on SACD and as a download in a multitude of formats to suit all pockets and audio requirements, from mp3 to the highest-res DSD, in stereo and surround sound, up to DSD256. I chose the 24/96 flac to review, and it is very good indeed. Also, Channel include the texts and translations; AVI don’t, and their recording comes on CD or, at best, as a 24/48 download.

Iván Fischer is a mainstay of the Channel Classics catalogue: it was almost inevitable that three of his recordings should be chosen for inclusion on the freebie (CCSSA SEL7020 – Spring 2020/2) that was released to celebrate the label’s thirtieth birthday, including a movement from his recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony (CCSSA38817: Recording of the Month – review). Dan Morgan commented on the breath-taking quality of the sound of that recording, which he reviewed in DXD. I listened to the new recording in 24/96 stereo format, and the epithet is just as applicable to the new album in high-definition sound. It’s so good that it deserves to be heard from the HD layer of the SACD or in one of the better downloads.

The Philips recording of Baker and Haitink may be ADD, but it’s by no means outdated. As a reminder that bit-rates matter, I accidentally ripped it in wma format, at 192 kb/s, and wondered what had happened to the quality. Heard from the Eloquence CD or ripped in full-fat wav, it’s still very good. (The Eloquence single CD, 4681822, can be obtained at mid-price, or the Classic FM version, 4820449, can be downloaded at budget price. There’s a 2-for-1 download, coupled either with Hermann Prey, John Shirley-Quirk and Jessye Norman in Mahler songs, 4540142, or with Bernard Haitink’s Mahler Ninth, 4622992).

As well as the sound quality, Dan Morgan also praised Gerhild Romberger’s contribution to the Mahler Three. Even with Ludwig and Baker in mind, that’s equally true of her contribution to Das Lied von der Erde. You need only listen to her singing of the extended Ewig (eternally) at the end of the work to fall in love with her singing. I had to listen again to the whole of that movement, Der Abschied, straight away. Everything is just right here – conductor, orchestra, recording and soloist all as one. Perhaps the diction might have been a little clearer, but I’m not complaining when the singing is so beautiful.

That extended Ewig concludes the most inspired of the additions and changes which Mahler made to Bethge’s translation of these poems: ‘The dear earth everywhere / Blossoms in Spring and grows green again! / Everywhere and eternally the distance shines bright and blue! / Eternally …’ Janet Baker was born to sing this music, and her collaboration with Bernard Haitink in the final movement gets just right the blend of loss and hope, of heart and head, which the music requires. If the final Ewig … seems to go on forever, that’s partly because the whole movement is given room to expand – at 31:14, this is one of the longest recordings of the finale, even longer than Klemperer’s, which is almost exactly matched by Iván Fischer’s 29:34.

If that had been Baker’s only recording, I could have accepted King’s less wonderful contribution. Perhaps the answer would be a composite of her contribution with Haitink together with Kmentt’s on her Audite live recording (1970), but I don’t wish to underrate her share of the Audite version, which is also very fine and well recorded: Recording of the Month – review Spring 2019/1. I’m pleased that Audite were able to omit the applause without cutting off the acoustic. Gerhild Romberger’s voice may not quite have that combination of beauty and wistfulness that marks Janet Baker’s, but I could happily take her contribution to the new recording to my Desert Island.

I fear that the contrast between Robert Dean Smith in the opening movement and Romberger’s entrance in the second is quite marked. I note that Smith is also the tenor soloist on the forthcoming Pentatone recording. He certainly meets Michael Kennedy’s requirement for a tenor of Heldentenor stature (Master Musicians, Mahler, Dent, 1974, p.138), having sung Tannhäuser very much to Simon Thompson’s satisfaction – review – and John Quinn thought that he did a fine job as Doctor Marianus in Mariss Jansons’ RCO Live recording of Mahler’s Eighth – review. But he’s no match for Fritz Wunderlich, Michael Kennedy’s – and my – ideal singer for the part; in fact, Dan Morgan’s review of another Concertgebouw recording, a blu-ray set of the Mahler symphonies on which Smith also sings Das Lied, just about says it for me: ‘One can only sympathise with Robert Dean Smith; not only does he have to deal with Mahler’s taxing tessitura but he also has to struggle to make himself heard above the orchestra. That said, his voice isn’t particularly robust or distinctive, and there are audible – and visible – signs that he’s not too comfortable here’. Omit the ‘and visual’ and, I fear, that’s true of the new recording.

It's not that Smith or King are absolute turn-offs, but neither quite matches the quality of their mezzo counterpart. The tenor has the unenviable task of opening proceedings with Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, in which he has to capture a wide range of emotions, from hedonism to melancholy, the drunken earth giving way to the refrain Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod; life and death are both dark. The paradox is heightened when one remembers that the composer who set the ancient poet’s words recommending getting drunk as the answer to life’s problems was himself abstemious. By the third movement, Von der Jugend, Smith seems to have warmed to the task rather more, but there’s still that slightly perceptible element of strain.

These slight reservations prevent the Recommended status that I would otherwise happily have conferred on this recording. I’ve had reservations about Iván Fischer’s Mahler in the past, but they have been resolved with repeated hearing. That was the case with his recording of the Fourth. There’s no need for me to take time to warm to his direction this time – I’m convinced by the interpretation, by Romberger’s and the orchestra’s contributions, and by the recording quality. If the DSD versions and the SACD are even better than the 24/96 stereo, they must be outstanding.

I haven’t yet mentioned Ádám Fischer, with Anna Larsson, Stuart Skelton and the Düsseldorf Orchestra (AVI8553407). I’m much more comfortable right from the opening of Das Trinklied with Skelton. He may not quite project the power that Smith attempts, but that’s better than sounding slightly over-parted, and Ádám Fischer, not unexpectedly, relates very well indeed to the music.

On the other hand, Anna Larsson sounds slightly less than at home in Der Einsame im Herbst. Never the time and the place and the person together, it seems. I need hardly point out that these are largely matters of taste, and that I expect others to react more positively to Smith on the new Channel Classics and Larsson on AVI than I have done.

I listened to the AVI as streamed from Naxos Music Library. You wouldn’t expect 320 kb/s mp3 to sound as good as the 24/96 Channel Classics recording, but it’s good enough to assure me that the CD and the higher quality downloads are satisfying. Like Michael Cookson, however, I would have preferred a little more depth to the recording, with the voices slightly more prominent.

The Fischer brothers offer us very sympathetic accounts of Das Lied von der Erde, but both fall slightly short of the summit for me on account of one of the soloists. Making a world-beating recording is like putting together an ideal cricket team – it’s no coincidence that Neville Cardus wrote so well about both. For my ideal team, I’d like Fritz Wunderlich, Janet Baker, either of the Fischer brothers or Klemperer, and the recording quality of the new Channel Classics. One day, perhaps, technology will be able to achieve that. Until then, this new recording has to be judged a near – very near – miss. But do try it if, you can, when it appears from Naxos Music Library – you may react differently from me to Robert Dean Smith for Iván Fischer or to Anna Larsson for Ádám Fischer.

One thing is certain – I’ve spent a whole day listening to different recordings of this superb song-symphony and, as I close this review at 23.30, I’m still listening and not tired of it, but I’m planning to end with a complete contrast: a new recording on Cantate of the music of baroque composer Samuel Scheidt.

Brian Wilson

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