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The Mahler Symphonies

A synoptic survey by Tony Duggan

Tony Duggan passed away in 2012. Ralph Moore has completed a survey of Das lied covering recordings Tony was never able to hear. See Ralph's review here.

Das Lied von der Erde

Death was no stranger to Mahler. In childhood it visited his home and took away brothers and sisters. In adult life he faced it down by pinning it all over his creative work in the form of funeral marches, settings of songs about more children dying, of drummer boys going to battlefields, of soldiers facing execution. Death was personal. It drank in the taverns, it stared back in the reflections of mountain streams, it glowered from the trees in the forests. Nearer the end of his own short life, however, death lost its sting and the composition of "Das Lied Von der Erde" ("The Song of The Earth") could be looked on as the drawing of that sting.

In the Autumn of 1907, following the death of his elder daughter, Mahler learned he had a heart condition. Whilst this diagnosis was not, as if so often mistakenly believed, a sentence of death it certainly had the effect of focusing his mind anew on mortality and mutability. It also coincided with his being given a collection of poems which were free translations by Hans Bethge of original Chinese verses. These seemed to magically chime in with Mahler's growing belief about what comes after death and he selected seven of the poems, rewriting some passages, to arrange them into six extended song movements that form a continuous theme and variations on the leave taking of life, "The Song of The Earth". Every mood from cynical and drunken hedonism to serene and Zen-like stasis gets covered in the course of the hour this work takes. At the end, the message is that, since the beauties and mysteries of the earth renew themselves year after year, our own passing should not be feared but accepted calmly and without rancour. The earth, the world and nature goes on without us.

The work is a symphony in all but name and form. A completely novel creation: a "song-symphony". This fact proved useful since Mahler shied away from calling it his "Ninth Symphony". Composers died after their Ninths. Composition extended over 1908 and 1909, but the first performance didn't take place until six months after Mahler's death in 1911 when it was conducted by Bruno Walter.

A large orchestra is called for yet Mahler's use of it is like that of a huge chamber group with many long, concertante-like solo passages and textures often pared down to a handful of solos supporting the singer. The first movement/song illustrates energy, hedonism and terror in the face of life, all seen by a drunkard trying to get along by deadening his pain through oblivion. The second is a quiet meditation on Autumn as metaphor for the loneliness of the individual in the face of life and its inevitable end. The third, fourth and fifth lighten the mood with descriptions of carefree days, sunlit uplands, and more drink, hints too from the Chinese scenes at the base of these poem unmistakably filtered through the darker-tinted glass of turn-of-the-century Viennese angst. The sixth is one of the greatest pieces of music Mahler ever wrote: a thirty minute meditation on leave-taking with, at its core, a funeral march and, at its end, a long passage in which the soloist gives us comfort that "everywhere the lovely earth blossoms forth in spring and grows green again....for ever, for ever, for ever."

This work is perhaps the most special to lover's of Mahler's music and opinions on performances and recordings of it are among the most disputed. With other Mahler symphonies it's the conductor's interpretation that is principally on trial in a survey such as this. In "Das Lied Von Der Erde", however, the conductor's contribution must be considered on an equal footing with that of the two singers. One weak link in this trio can flaw a recording irrevocably.

Kurt Sanderling's recording is with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Peter Schreier and Birgit Finnila on Berlin Classics (0094022BC). The opening of the first song, "Der Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde", ("Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow") is huge and commanding with a real weight of tone that pitches us into the hurly-burly just as it should. Peter Schreier handles both the louder, animated, more vigorous passages and then the softer, more lyrical ones with equal flair and aplomb. So this is a very complete rendition of the opening song. We know Schreier to be an artist of rare intelligence and he shows this in spades. There is never a moment when he hasn't something interesting to say about this work. True, he may not have a Heldentenor's power but he makes up for this in dramatic point. For example, each repetition of the line "Dunkel ist das leben, ist der Tod" ("Dark is life; dark is death") that punctuates this movement as a bitter-sweet refrain, as if casting a sidelong glance at popular song, finds a different tone from him each time, the second an especially dying fall: a world of regret conveyed in one phrase showing how alive he is to each nuance. In the passage beginning "Das firmament blaut ewig" ("The heavens are ever blue") I love the special treatment Sanderling gives to the trumpets, representative of his care for instrumental detail and an example of the support he gives Schreier's intelligent delivery. But the passage that's the greatest test for the singer is that which describes a nightmare vision of an ape crouching on graves in the moonlight. This is wonderfully dramatised by Schreier without tumbling into melodrama. Notice how he spits out the words "wild-gespenstische Gestalt" ("wild and ghostly form"). There is a great sense of a climax reached and then a satisfying return to lyricism for the close. This is all recognition that here is a poem of extremes and that those extremes need to be mapped and framed by the soloist and conductor which they are here in a deeply satisfying whole, frightening and soothing all at once. A better start to this work could not be imagined.

The contrast between the extremes of vigorous exuberance and heartfelt lyricism that mark the first song and the stark, Autumnal and static feel of the second, "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("Autumn Loneliness"), is superbly achieved by Sanderling with an opening on strings and oboe that achieves the trick of being glacial yet also invested with deep meaning. The delicate colours of autumn are painted superbly as the music progresses. Finnila's entrance is arrestingly ripe and whilst you can't say she's Schreier's equal in the rarest expression of intelligence and drama, she does acquit herself well. Sanderling keeps up the tempo and, in the end, manages to make this quite a passionate performance without seeming to mould very much. There is pent-up passion held back here. Finnila does have a lighter voice than some we are used to but I found her very refreshing. Her grasp of the words is impressive and she responds perfectly to the restless accompaniment by Sanderling of the one real passage of warmth and feeling at the line "Sonne der liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen" ("Sun of love, will you never shine again,").

Peter Schreier is the real gem of this recording with Sanderling. His delivery of every word and phrase in the third song, "Von Der Jugend" ("Youth"), is a joy, as also is Sanderling's accompaniment and that of his orchestra. The lightening of tone after the previous two movements is remarkable, but even then conductor and soloist notice that the penultimate stanza does have more of a reflective feel to it. Schreier may not be to everybody's taste but I love the slightly ironic stance he seems to take. There is always a cynicism lurking behind his voice giving even the lyrical sections an edge. He seems to want to convey the idea that, though he is the very much participant in what he describes, he nevertheless retains his independence of mind and spirit, like an actor's view of a great part he is enacting on stage - a Loge rather than a Siegfried. In the fifth song "Der Trunkene im Fruhling" ("The Drunkard in Spring") note the wonder invested into the line "mir ist als wie im Traum" ("it seems to me like a dream") and in "Der lenz ist da" ("Yes ! Spring is here") the slight slowing down to wonderful effect. You also know he is listening to the birds in this song and what a tuneful piccolo the orchestra supplies. At "Ich fulle mir den Becher neu" (I fill my glass anew") there is a final change of timbre to tell you the singer is hitting the bottle again and he even sounds drunk in the last stanza with the final words barked out.

Finnila copes better than many with Mahler's impossible demands during the episode in the fourth song, "Von der Schoenheit" ("Beauty"), that describes young men on horseback surprising girls bathing by a river. The speed at which she must take this torrent of words must fill all singers who approach it with dread and some of the best have been known to almost come to grief. But Finnila navigates with style. Then she manages an epilogue with all the time and space it needs where, as so often, Sanderling is there like a rock. However, the really big test for her is the last song, "Der Abschied" ("Farewell"), that is the centrepiece of the work.

Finnila darkens her tone for the opening and Sanderling supports her by making sure everything can be heard in the orchestra. Remember the orchestration for this work is one of the many remarkable aspects of it and the recorded sound here presents a rich canvas with enough air around the instruments and a nice bloom overall. There is also in Sanderling's gentle pressing tempo a forward motion and great yearning. The wonderful bloom on the playing in the passage about the moon floating like a silver ship on the blue sea of the heavens is really made to float up and down with Finnila's singing illustrating the words. There is similar rapport between conductor and soloist at "Alle Sehnsucht will nun traumen," ("All longing now has turned to dreaming"). The orchestral interlude, a funeral march, is given great lyrical portent by Sanderling and a modernist feel reminding us this is late-period Mahler. Then note the low tam-tam at Finnila's description of the stranger dismounting in the final section. The line "Du mein freund, mir war auf dieser Welt das Gluck nicht hold !" ("Oh my friend fortune was not kind to me in this world") is, I think, one of the central statements of this work and Finnila's delivery of it is made more remarkable by the balance of her voice against the orchestra where all details can be heard clearly, woodwinds especially. As I have implied, she is not quite Schreier's equal in artistry, her contribution not quite as distinctive. But we are comparing excellence so don't underestimate Finnila's contribution which is never less than beautifully sung and phrased with each word counting. Both Finnila and Sanderling see the end of the work as a scene of joy and repose, regret for the loss of earthly senses, not despair, which many commentaries on this work might imply. The whole approach in this movement accords with so much of what Sanderling seems to be aiming for in the whole: let the music speak, let the soloists deliver any extra expressive points and concentrate on detail, tone and a singing line. Maybe the heart is not wrung as in some recordings but this is as valid a view as any and I found it deeply impressive. I also admire the recording balance which places the singers a little further back than is often the case so the orchestra becomes like another soloist. Since they play superbly this adds another dimension to a remarkable and distinctive recording.

Less remarkable but no less distinctive is Eugene Ormandy's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Richard Lewis and Lili Chookasian on Sony (SBK 53 518). This recording sells at bargain price and so must be the main recommendation for those on the most limited resources - more so than the recording on Naxos conducted by Michael Halasz. Richard Lewis has less attack than Schreier in the first song. He is more mellow and lyrical and Ormandy matches him in being more lighter-toned than Sanderling, more concerned with the singing line and communicating energy and lift. There is less contrast between the varying sections of the song too. The passage starting with "Das firmament blaut ewig" is delivered by Lewis with none of Schreier's special irony and in the ape and graves section Lewis is a little overwhelmed by the orchestra, well as he sings, where Schreier manages to ride the climax admirably. Not surprisingly, Lewis doesn't have Schreier's distinctive delivery on each "dark is life; dark is death" refrain". The playing of the orchestra is superb, though, giving notice from the start we are in the presence of one of the world's great ensembles.

Ormandy opens the second song with admirable restraint and real icy-coldness. This is late Autumn with no heat at all. Lili Chookasian has a very light voice and her first entrance doesn't bode too well for what is to come. All this brings some dividends when the orchestra shows a wonderful burst of warmth, especially from the lower strings at "Bald werden die verwelkten" ("Soon the withered golden leaves"). In fact, the Philadelphia strings are, and it should be no surprise, one of the glories of this recording and show Chookasian up. If only she could sing as well as they do. At "Ich weine viel in meinem Einsamkeiten" ("Long do I weep in my loneliness") hear also the solo horn against the oboe picked out by Ormandy and then "Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen" (Sun of love will you never shine again), where, as with Lewis in the ape and graves section of the first song, Chookasian is rather overwhelmed by the power of the orchestra.

I think Ormandy sees this work in symphonic terms. It's a view which is often put forward by scholars which casts the first and second songs as first and second movements, songs three, four and five running together as a kind of scherzo-intermezzo third movement (fourth song as quasi trio to the other two movements' scherzo), and the sixth song as fourth movement/finale. The reason I see this in Ormandy's account is that he seems to see the third, fourth and fifth songs in very much the same way, very little variation in tone and approach from song to song, stressing the chinoisserie that is certainly a feature of Mahler's orchestration. Then there is the fact that little of the darker undertones Sanderling sees are brought out. There are some lovely woodwinds at the start of "Von der Jugend" matched with Lewis's lighter delivery paying great dividends. Unlike Schreier, however, he is much more the witness than the participant and, especially in comparison, even more detached from the words in "Der Trunkene im Fruhling". Schreier, for example, becomes quite inebriated as the song goes on where Lewis stays as sober as a judge. It's a valid view either way and the listener must decide but I prefer Schreier's approach. It brings me in more to what is being depicted and this work must involve the listener. Though let it be said there is a rare stepping inside of the scene by Lewis at "Ja! Der Lenz ist da" (Yes ! Spring is here") and he also manages a laugh when describing the bird's laughter.

In "Von Der Schoenheit" Chookasian struggles to make the words tell, not least in the horses section which Ormandy takes very fast making her hang on for dear life and then in the opening of "Der Abschied" there is some lack of tragic weight, but this is in common with what appears to be the philosophy behind Ormandy's performance. Again and again the stress is on refinement, fastidiousness and polish and no praise can be too high for the orchestra who bring really cultured playing to everything. Again Chookasian seems under-involved. With Lewis any detachment could be looked on as a positive stance but with Chookasian I feel it's simply that she isn't quite up to the peculiar demands of this piece, never more so than in the challenge of the last song where her rather one-dimensional singing and peripheral feeling for the words tells most of all. Ormandy's polish is in evidence throughout and a good example is his accompaniment of "Die Blumen blassen im Dammerschien" ("The flowers grow pale in the twilight"). He is very controlled too, helped by a slightly faster tempo than we are used to, so that crucial line "Alle sehnsucht will nun traumen" doesn't move us as it should. He also skates too discursively over the wonderful bird section, a real example of his refinement actually robbing the music of one of its most distinctive moments -more "Ma Mere l'oye" than "Le Chant de la terre"- and although that expressionist, "Pierrot Lunaire-like" section beginning "Es wehet kuhl" with flute and string bass underpinning has a fine sense of stillness it has less depth than it needs, so that when the music warms up there is less feeling of respite. In the funeral march orchestral passage there is some extraordinary music where Mahler pushes the boundaries of tonality to the limit but Ormandy rather throws it away in pursuit of smooth edges. The overall tempo is too quick also to make the effect it has to, though there is some wonderful playing from the cellos at the climax, really digging in to their phrases. Which is more than Chookasian does in the closing section. Her attention to the words is not really close and her tone rather one-dimensional, not expressive enough for music that expresses so much and Ormandy rather forces her on.

In sum this is a beautiful performance, especially from the point of view of conductor and the orchestra. But there is more to this work than what lies on the surface and Ormandy's apparent stress on symphonic aspects seems to encourage him in his refinement of everything else. Lewis's detachment at least seems to have point. He plays, as I said, the witness. Chookasian, on the other hand, is witness rather, one suspects, because she doesn't know how to get involved or indeed whether she should. On balance I think the same applies to Ormandy who doesn't impress as a Mahlerian in this most elusive of works and is only saved by his wonderful orchestra who, in spite of some slightly faster tempi than we are used to, make this a performance to be enjoyed for all I may not regard it as a front runner.

Mahler brackets a baritone as alternative to a contralto in songs two, four, and six but this practice is still the exception. One reason must be the fact that male and female singers alternating makes for greater contrast. Another that the presence of great mezzos and contraltos down the years, compared with fewer comparable baritones, have made the choice of a woman automatic. But it could be said that it seems more natural for a man to be relating these poems - the poet speaking - and there are three recordings that take this option. Two of them are with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and one with Thomas Hampson. Hampson is matched with Peter Seiffert and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle on EMI (5 56200 2) but I'm going to pass over this recording in favour of one of those with Fischer-Dieskau.
For one thing the Rattle recording illustrates the problem of having two voices that don't contrast enough. Hampson and Seiffert are fine singers but they have voices that sound very alike. In addition both they and their conductor, whilst giving a superbly prepared performance, don't really penetrate into the fabric of this work when compared with the best of the rest. So, with regret, because the recorded sound on this issue is perhaps the best I have heard, I shall leave this aside. So far as the two recordings with Fischer-Dieskau are concerned his earlier one with Murray Dickie and the Philharmonia under Paul Kletzki on EMI is a lovely performance but is, I believe, surpassed by his second where he is partnered by James King with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and re-issued in a new mastering by Decca on their "Legendary Performances" series (466 381 2). The extra distinction in the conducting of Bernstein and the presence of the Viennese adds lustre to this famous set.

James King is a Heldentenor, a Siegmund in the past, and the abandon he and Bernstein adopt to tear into the first song is very impressive. Bernstein's tempo is quite quick but does retain the "pesante" Mahler demands. He is also aware of the intricate details in the orchestra, helped by a rich but very analytical recording. At the first "Dunkel ist das leben" note the drop in tempo so that when the opening bursts out again the effect is truly arresting. King enunciates each word superbly too and is very passionate. "Das firmament blaut ewig" brings a fine change in mood and only Bernstein matches Horenstein with his vivid pizzicati at this point. There is wonderful string playing right through, in fact, and every department of the VPO show them with this music in their blood. In the ape on the graves section Bernstein and King conspire to deliver the most expressionistic account of all, pushing the music to the absolute limit. King is magnificent here with a visceral assault on our emotions and notice the crunch on the final chord of all with the pizzicati sounding like something out of the more recent avant garde.

In the second song the contrast could not be greater after what has followed. The preparation before the entry of Fischer- Dieskau is superb. "Man meint, ein kunstler habe Staub von Jade" ("One would think an artist had strewn jade dust") brings a beautifully pointed description and what delicacy on the word "ausgestreut". "Ein kalter wind beugt ihre Stengel nieder" ("an icy wind bends down their stems") really sounds as though he is shielding himself from the blast, so this is a subtlety dramatised account from Fischer-Dieskau. Bernstein was never one to hold back when there is any emotion going but it all seems more than appropriate here because he does know when to pare the music down to almost nothing. "Mein Herz ist mude" ("My heart is weary.") really does sound like a man at the end of his tether. The great interpreter of Die Winterriese understand how to convey that in a song.

So this recording shows that two male singers can be made to contrast: King heroic and passionate, Fischer-Dieskau reflective and elegiac. Bernstein seems happy to be a man for all seasons and we will see this as a recording that really explores opposites in this work, sometime polar opposites, to a remarkable degree.

King bounces the third song along, all jaunty energy, and Bernstein's accompaniment is ripe and chipper too, though they vary their approach in the central section. This bounce is maintained in the fifth song but I must say here I start to see the value of a little more subtlety, of irony like with Schreier or Julius Patzak for Walter, though there is no doubt King has the lung power those two singers lack. At "Der Lenz ist dar" ("Spring is here") the playing of the VPO is a wonderful example of their total commitment to this music.

Fischer-Dieskau's description of the girls in the fourth song realises the necessity to draw us into the scene and see it through his eyes. A slightly slower tempo from Bernstein brings dividends too with some lovely string slides. But the horses section is a mad dash, as fast as possible, forcing Fischer-Dieskau to hector and shout in the manner of a PE instructor and I didn't enjoy this one little bit. The return of the opening material for the close is even more poignant, however. Did Mahler write any music sweeter than this ?

Bernstein is surprisingly sharp in the opening of "Der Abschied", not doom-laden as many often are. There is such experience in Fischer-Dieskau's opening lines to follow this. He easily manages the trick of staying one step back from the scene, as I think the singer should here, but also to invest it with deeper meaning. Here I felt Hampson for Rattle stayed one step back but nothing else, so there was a cold detachment which was inappropriate. "Oh sieh ! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt der mond" is then floated like the moon it describes and it is as if Fischer-Dieskau first steps into the scene at this point. In the passage describing the birds Fischer- Dieskau picks out words pointedly and Bernstein paints the scene vividly, as he does later when the central interlude starts. There are some really extreme sounds here again.

The great lieder singer Fischer-Dieskau is comes to the fore in "Er stieg vom Pfred und reichte ihm den Trunk" ("He dismounted and gave him the parting cup") in its intimate simplicity and so it is with the rest of the great closing passage. Again we sense the great contrast achieved by matching Fischer-Dieskau with King. The recording balance of the voice here and elsewhere is forward compared with others so it's like having Fischer-Dieskau in the room with you. This adds intimacy in those parts where intimacy is appropriate, but can be wearing where it is not. This latter is also an the impression I am left with by James King and, in his case, it isn't just a question of the recording balance. His heroic tenor might project the extrovert music superbly, but on repeated hearings it can become tiring and it can lead to a slight skating over of those passages in his songs where some intimacy is needed. So, in this recording it's the tenor who is the weaker link. But Fischer Dieskau is special and his contribution among the finest available. Bernstein's view also is to be relished, especially its awareness of the nervy tensions inherent in this music, one that is sometimes ignored. As so often with him in Mahler this is a roller-coaster ride. But there are few, if any, passages where this is anything other than illuminating and enhancing.

That prince among Mahlerians Jascha Horenstein never recorded this work commercially. Like so much else in his recording activities the catalogue of missed opportunities that deprived us of, among other things, an integral recorded Mahler cycle got in the way. Fortunately he made a studio recording for the BBC in Manchester with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, John Mitchinson and Alfreda Hodgson under near ideal conditions in 1972 a year before his death. Through the activities of those with their eyes on the main chance, unofficial issues have appeared and you can find two of them on Music and Arts (CD 728) and Descant (Descant 01 - available through Berkshire Record Outlets). The orchestra had never played the work so Horenstein was given time to rehearse them thoroughly and the results pay dividends. This is an expansive performance but the degree of space Horenstein gives the music, allied especially with the familiar fingerprint of choosing modular tempi to suit an entire movement, takes us deeper into this music than many others can. Note the more trenchant tempo from the start of "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" leading to the dragging on the strings at "erst sing' ich euch ein lied" ("first I will sing you a song"). Then when Mitchinson reaches "liegen wust die Garten der Seele" ("the gardens of the soul lie waste") you really believe they do. Right the way through this first song the tread is heavier, the weight of the world greater, the mood reflective. To some this might take a little getting used to but persistence brings rewards. Not least in the change of mood with the third stanza "Das firmament blaut ewig" ("The heavens are ever blue") and the opportunity Horenstein gives himself to mark emphatically the pizzicati in the short passage while the singer is silent. Evidence of his care for inner detail allied to outer structure. Mitchinson delivers these words as a lament, tear-stained with his care at "Du aber mensch, Mensch, wie lang lebst denn du ?" ("But thou, o man, how long wilt thou live ?") penetrating as a question like no others. The section describing the ape on the graves is terrifying with unease carried over to the very end.

After such a performance of the first song the second comes across even colder than usual, more akin to despair. There should now be no question that Horenstein's view of this work is darker and tinged with tragedy. The phrasing of the oboe is exemplary in its lamenting quality as Horenstein continues his deep analysis. Alfreda Hodgson's first entry is unobtrusive, her voice darker and more earthy than the previous two we have considered. This is surely the kind of voice Mahler must have had in mind. There is a surge of feeling at "Bald werden die verweltkten goldnen Blatter" but no real warmth so I think Horenstein wants to stress the utter loneliness in the poem. The suitability of Hodgson's voice shows again at "Ich hab' Erquickung" ("I need refreshment") with a really earthy tone and even the one point where most interpretations relax the mood, the one point where the poem shows some hope, "Sonne der liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen ?" ("Sun of love will you never shine again ?"), the stress seems to be on hope rather than promise - a vain hope, too.

In "Von der Jugend" Mitchinson lightens his approach revealingly but Horenstein's slightly held-back accompaniment reveals more of the darker, angst-beneath-the-surface quality. Note too a sight drag on the rhythm, and in the central stanza, where the singer observes the surface of the pond, Horenstein and Mitchinson become very reflective. In the fourth song Hodgson's opening is as good an example as any of her feeling for words and Horenstein gives her just the space she needs. At last a singer in these songs that can match her partner. The horses section is steadier than usual and so Hodgson keeps up and gets her words in without problems. Also Horenstein can mark the slightly unhinged quality of this passage, not usually noted. You are also aware that this song, like the previous one, has three parts and I love the half- tone Hodgson adopts at the end allowing us to hear the lovely high strings and woodwinds. Horenstein closes the movement as you would expect, a real awareness of winding down. He is also wonderful at the chamber-like textures, helped by the closer-in recording, but surely as much a tribute to him. This is also true of the fifth song. Note the plaintive woodwind, cawing like birds. Again there is more drag, but every detail tells and the mood remains analytic and elegiac all at once.

The opening of "Der Abschied" is doom-laden promising a heavy journey ahead. In fact it's worth noting Horenstein's performance clocks the longest span of all. There are passages when time seems to stand still in an almost Zen-like stasis. Hodgson enters almost with fear, as if she is going to cause the world to end if she sings too loudly. The passage describing the birds ("Die vogel hocken still in ihren Zweigen") shows a conductor steeped in the Viennese tradition of that time and what conducting and playing there is too around "Es wehet kuhl im Schatten meiner fichten", the words almost whispered by Hodsgon and the feeling of rapt expectation extraordinary. We know this remarkable performance was done in one take, as if it was in front of a live audience, but I don't think I have ever heard this amazing passage, where Mahler pares everything down to a few instruments, taken so slowly and with such concentration. It's hard to find words adequate to describe the final pages. Taken at as slow a tempo as could be dared, soloist, conductor and orchestra sustain a line that is unutterably moving. According to John Mitchinson in a later interview most of the orchestra were in tears at the close.

So, we have a performance where both soloists compliment and balance each other and are matched with a conductor whose own contribution is one of the greatest ever committed to tape. This was a special work to Horenstein who first heard it in Vienna in 1918 conducted by Mengelberg. He was never the conductor for the easy option, though. He expected an enormous amount from everyone, including the listener, and it is the case that many of his recordings don't reveal their secrets on first encounter and that is the case here. I really cannot recomend this recording too highly. It's one for the long haul, one that will reveal its greatness over time. Some may find Horenstein's tempi, especially that for the first song, on the slower side of acceptable. For me the tempi are natural and what is more important there's never any strain in the playing or the singing because of it. It's clear an immense amount of preparation went into this and that the decision to perform without retakes paid dividends. The sound is analytical, tailored for broadcast, but this only accentuates Horenstein's way with the chamber textures with every detail is exposed by his gimlet eye. This is a performance that penetrates to the very core of this work, the time in which it was written and the man who wrote it. It reaches to the core of the listener also. The orchestra is the only weak link. They play well and have the benefit of being the clean sheet on which Horenstein wrote his interpretation but they don't have the corporate elan of one of the great international ensembles. However, surface sheen, as we saw with Ormandy and his Philadelphians, is not everything.

Five years after the Horenstein studio broadcast the BBC Northern Symphony performed the work "live" at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester with John Mitchinson again but this time with Raymond Leppard conducting and, the real gem of the recording, Janet Baker. This appeared a few years ago on BBC Radio Classics and has become available again on a reissue of some of that series, BBC Classics Collection (BBCM 5012-2). We can speculate on how much Horenstein's influence was still with these players but it would be nice to think many of them carried the experience of working with him for they play the work well under a conductor not usually associated with Mahler. Leppard presses forward in the first song more than Horenstein, is more energetic than many others. I love the cackling woodwind against the opening horn figure each time it re- appears and Mitchinson is encouraged to be more dynamic and energetic. "Das firmament blaut ewig" retains that sense of forward movement, not pausing for repose, but manages to pick out fine detail. It may be the presence of an audience that makes him really project the words so the ape on the graves section receives more hysteria than it did with Horenstein. Perhaps the orchestra is lacking in the bass department but the gain in higher frequencies of the shriller aspects of the music is illuminating.

Mitchinson and Leppard are especially perky in the "Von der Jugend". A lightening of tone after what has preceded and you feel Mitchinson is freer to smile more than he did under the rather glum Horenstein. Leppard is, I think, a more approachable character with less early-century Viennese angst. Again in the fifth song Mitchinson and Leppard go for energy. I found the delivery of the passage starting at "Ein Vogel singt im baum" contained a real Wunderhorn quality reminiscent of the Third Symphony's third and second movements. Leppard should be congratulated for noticing this.

When Janet Baker makes her first appearance in the second song we are in the presence of one of the greatest of all Mahler interpreters, one of the great voices of the century. Note even in her first line there is no tentativeness. Her interpretation is formed from the very first word with meaning in every syllable. Her tone also is so full it has the effect of shifting the entire attitude of this movement to something more than just a description of loneliness to the act of being lonely. We are made to feel through the singer and so are made to care about the character. This is an aspect of interpretation you would expect a great singer like Baker to bring out. Listen in "ein kalter wind beugt ihre Stengel nieder" ("an icy wind blows down their stems") how she halves her tone for the last words and likewise, after the outpouring at "Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen", she tempers this in the same way at "mild aufzutrocken" ("my bitter tears") with almost a whisper. It is as if the bitter tears have only just been discovered. Few singers, if any, can describe the young girls playing by the river in "Von der Schoenheit" like Baker. You have to hear to believe how her phrasing, lilt and the special magic of her voice makes this passage stick in the mind. An openness of heart is the best description. Notice the slight pause on the word "Neckerein" ("teasingly"). That kind of artistry is denied to many singers. She can even hang behind the beat a little in "spielgt sie im blanken Wasser wieder" ("and reflects them in the clear water").

Sheer weight of tone is rather missing from the tolling at the start of "Der Abschied". It could have done with a little extra funeral tread for Leppard is less good on tragic weight in this work. But when Baker enters any reservations must be put aside. There is an immense contrast between the last time we heard her and now and this ability to cover a whole world of meaning and mood is one of the many reasons why she is so great in this work The long orchestral interlude perhaps finds Leppard falling some way short of his more illustrious colleagues but he acquits himself very well for all that. The recording balance favours the winds and they play with great character, if not with the cultured tone you would expect from one of the great Mahler ensembles, but that was true also of their account for Horenstein. "Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk" ("He dismounted and gave me the parting cup") is a token for what is to come since Baker's account of the final part of this work surpasses everything she does and that was formidable enough. Again her ability to vary her tone and dynamics and to pick out each word and phrase is uncanny and deeply moving.

Janet Baker's great contribution is the finest part of this "live" recording but Mitchinson, so very good for Horenstein, also projects a more confident, extrovert account this time, showing him to be a great and flexible artist whilst not quite matching this partner as he did Hodgson. Leppard too, it must be said, is a revelation. That is not a case of damning with faint praise. His background at this time was in other repertoire but you would never know it and what he may lack in Mahlerian depth he makes up for in innate musicianship and obvious love of the work.

This is not the only recording featuring Janet Baker. Her studio recording is on Phillips with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink and James King as her tenor partner. This is currently only available coupled with Haitink's fine account of Mahler's Ninth which makes it less competitive. There is no doubt the presence of one of the great Mahler orchestras gives this a head start over the recording with Leppard, but I think that is all it has in its favour. Janet Baker's contribution on the Leppard recording has more reach, depth and eloquence, added to by the presence of an audience. James King has the Heldentenor's voice many believe these songs demand but I think he's better heard on the recording with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. Haitink supports both singers superbly and those who believe his considerable Mahlerian credentials make him more suited to this work than Leppard need not hesitate. Here is Janet Baker in her glory, after all. But for real greatness from her point of view my advice is to seek out the Leppard recording because he is by no means shamed by comparison with Haitink. In fact, there are passages where his slightly more astringent approach is to be preferred.

Otto Klemperer recorded the work twice commercially, but it's his second recording for EMI which is the one to consider, especially now it's been remastered for EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series (CDM 5 66892 2). Clarity and richness are the keynotes of his approach in the opening of the first song with a wonderful density and weight to support Fritz Wunderlich's golden, well-microphoned tenor. His first "Dunkel ist das Leben" is lamenting and lyrical but it's the passage "Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit" ("A brimming cup of wine at the right time") with a more insistent, ardent delivery that is the best representative of his wonderful contribution to this work, I believe one of the finest on record. Notice also the woodwind in the second "Dunkel ist...." where Klemperer's practice of giving prominence to all the woodwind in his special sound palette accentuates the chamber textures of this work to a remarkable degree. Since the players concerned are so good this is a big plus in this great recording. In the orchestral passage before "Das firmament blaut ewig" Klemperer, for all the astringency of his sound palette, sounds more exotic than most giving echoes of passages in the Seventh Symphony. Here also Wunderlich makes us aware of every word in the text. Notice too the cor anglais and the flutter-tongued flutes, never better caught or heard than here. Wunderlich might not have the lung power of the Heldentenor but manages with his artistry and clear diction to deliver the ape on the graves section in as manic a fashion as could be wished with real terror from Wunderlich.

Klemperer holds back his tempo for "Der Einsame im Herbst" with the opening woodwinds like lamenting crows on the branches. Forget Autumn, Winter is here already. This reminds us perhaps of Klemperer's life-long battles with manic-depression after the extroversion of the first song. Christa Ludwig matches Fritz Wunderlich in artistry and we are aware immediately that this recording boasts two singers of equal stature. Listen to the wonderful solo flute in this movement. At that time the Philharmonia retained Gareth Morris as Principal. He played a wooden instrument whose sound Klemperer was very fond of, unlike many colleagues. Ludwig is balanced a little further back than Wunderlich so her contribution takes on the air of a duet with the woodwind soloists. Her feeling for words matches Wunderlich's, though, and is almost as great as Baker's. I liked, for example, her slight hesitation on "Ein kalter wind beugt ihre Stengel nieder" ("An icy wind bends down their stems") and her description of the little lantern is exemplary, recognising this as a central image of the song. Then "Ja, gib mir ruh...." ("Yes, give me rest....") really shows the range of her voice - every timbre from high to low. The eloquence of Klemperer's interpretation shows even more in "ich weine viel..." with the orchestra and soloist in perfect accord and only Klemperer encourages the horn to snarl in the final line: a worm in the roses of the last flowering. Typically Mahler, typically Klemperer. It's interesting how it's the really great Mahler conductors who make the most of this elusive second song. Too often it can sound dry and anonymous after the ripeness of the first. Klemperer invests every bar with interest and Ludwig supports him.

The third song brings with it what might be a problem for some and that is the slower tempi Klemperer adopts. In this song I think it brings dividends in the feeling that every detail of Mahler's orchestration glitters, but there is some loss in energy. On the other hand it allows Wunderlich to take his time over every word and for us to enjoy that. Also, as the song uncurls itself, you become more aware of the darker shadows, more of the Viennese angst, behind the ostensibly Chinese imagery.

At the start of "Von der Schoenheit" there is lovely detail in the high strings showing what a rich recording this was and how well it has come up in the new transfer. Ludwig is almost as fine as Baker in the opening description with a lovely, chesty tone but that slower tempo we noticed in the previous song becomes a problem in the horses section. One effect is that Ludwig has no problems and we are also able to hear some remarkable details from the orchestra. But these do sound like old nags the young men are riding. Much is redeemed at the close, however, for at "In dem Funkeln ihrer grosen Augen" ("In the flashing of her large eyes") Ludwig really describes the girl as if a camera has zoomed in on one face in the crowd. A fine example again of a singer knowing how to direct the attention of the listener to the points that really matter.

Extraordinary woodwind again at the opening of "Der Trunkene im Fruhling", close in like a chamber group. Klemperer marks well the slightly off-beat in this song in spite of, again, a slower overall tempo than we are used to. But "Ein vogel singt ...." brings a lovely lightening of tone from Wunderlich, a real touch of fantasy. He doesn't really sound drunk, though, as does Schreier. Just rather tipsy.

With the heavy tolling of harp and gong at the opening of "Der Abschied" the impression is that Klemperer has decided on the most sombre of moods. Ludwig is very pure and ethereal in her opening and again her partnership with the solo flute is unforgettable. The oboe also is haunting. Soon after this the passage beginning with "Der bach singt voller...." ("The brook sings loud....") finds Klemperer picking the piece apart. It's rather like inviting an old friend around who then proceeds to submit you to deep analysis. This is perhaps the most remarkable account of the section describing the birds with every sound made to count. Klemperer also makes sure the mandolin is given prominence. It seems to be the older generation who do this. Maybe they still recalled how novel it was to hear this instrument all those years ago.

The funeral march passage is heavy with a very special irony. Not easy to describe but there is distinct mordancy about the timbre Klemperer adopts. The feeling I always have is that Klemperer regarded this passage as something of a centre piece of this work, token of his darker view of the work. But this doesn't detract from the closing pages which bring a wonderfully ecstatic reading from Ludwig, Klemperer and the orchestra. This close is not the sad farewell that it often seems but a real liberation of spirit.

So Klemperer's recording finds an almost perfect balance between the singers. Wunderlich has a wonderfully golden tone with every word clear. Maybe he doesn't dramatise as much as Schreier, or Mitchinson, but his is one of the greatest accounts. Ludwig has a wonderfully deep tone and keen awareness of the words surpassed only by Baker on record. This recording also gives a superb orchestra the chance to record a reading that accentuates the textures to a remarkable degree. Every strand is audible while at the same time supporting Klemperer's less-emotional, more analytical response. For those wishing to hear every detail of the score this is certainly the recording to have because the playing is the best on record. Some might find the woodwind balanced too close but since they play so well, and fit so well with what Klemperer is trying to do, few ought to complain. Some of Klemperer's tempi are very deliberate, the middle songs especially, and there's no denying this has an effect on the lighter elements, but this would not be the reading it was if they were different. This recording must be taken as it stands.

Experienced Mahlerites will have noticed there are two names so far missing from this survey: Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier. Walter gave the first performance of the work in 1911 and there are five extant recordings of him conducting it that are taken "off-the-air" in Europe and the USA. He recorded it officially for commercial release three times. The first was "live" in Vienna in 1936, the second in the studio in Vienna in 1952, the last in a New York studio in 1960. Of these the 1952 Vienna Philharmonic recording on Decca (414 194-2) is the most famous in that it records in the contralto songs the interpretation of Kathleen Ferrier who Walter admired from performances in New York and Edinburgh. Ferrier was terminally ill when she recorded this and died a few months later. This fact, added to her undoubted artistry and the unique quality of her voice, lends a special emotional charge to the recording, one which has elevated it to a status granted few others. Her tenor partner is Julius Patzak, a great artist who was also just past his prime when this recording was made and is rather overwhelmed by the orchestra at the start. There is such character in his voice and delivery that this sweeps many doubts away. His first "Dunkel ist das leben" has a sweet melancholy to it, for example. Like many of his colleagues Patazk is no Heldentenor, but I'm now convinced this is not as important as awareness of words and that ineffable thing called character, both of which Patzak has in abundance even if his voice shows signs of strain. "Das firmament...." finds him in reflective mood and Walter pares down the accompaniment for him beautifully, but the ape on the graves section finds Patzak very strained. You could argue this adds to the sense of drama, character and worldly-sickness, but after too many hearings it can wear a little. Walter is wonderfully thrusting in this movement, though. In fact the further back you go in Walter's recording career the faster he seems to go.

Walter presses on more than Klemperer in the second song also but paints as bleak a picture as any. Ferrier's entrance is as memorable as Baker's and establishes its magic from the start. "Ein kalter wind...." chills, "ein herz ist mude" is given more deeper meaning than many. However, like Patzak she shows strain, especially in "Sonne der liebe...". What matters is how far we are prepared to forgive her faults for the unique experience we are offered. Walter's tempo is much more suited to the middle songs than Klemperer's and in his songs Patzak has a wonderful line in sly confidence. This is the gnarled old philosopher, still in his cups from the tavern, nose pressed up against the metaphorical windows watching his betters enjoying themselves. Ferrier's description of the girls bathing is warm and involved, not as much as Baker's, but enough. She seems to manage the horses section better than most, maybe because Walter gives her just enough time. In the closing pages you hear why a voice like Ferrier's was so suited to this work but, though it pains me to say, the past tense is never more apparent than here.

There's no doubt in my mind that this famous recording needs to be on the shelf of serious Mahlerians. I am equally sure that, in all conscience, I cannot offer it as a benchmark choice. Hearing it again in such close proximity to so many other great recordings has caused me to alter my opinion of it slightly but profoundly. Ferrier and Patzak are both past their best, both showing signs of some distress. In addition to this, surprisingly, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are a drawback. Not to put too fine a point on it, they just don't play very well. There is insecurity in the woodwind and the strings are undernourished and insecure. This was still post-war Vienna, the orchestra hadn't really recovered from its wartime depravations and the Decca recording doesn't help them in being rather brittle and papery. I think the time has come for this recording to be allowed to take a second row seat in our considerations, remain there for enrichment, for the special quality of Ferrier especially, but to sit back and allow others to represent Mahler's masterpiece more fittingly on-stage. Those who wish to have a better recorded and played version of this work conducted by Bruno Walter should investigate his 1960 stereo recording with Ernst Haefliger, Mildred Miller and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Sony (SMK 64455). A fine performance well recorded but one which does not, in my opinion, quite stand comparison with the best of those already dealt with. The main problem is Mildred Miller who I think is relatively uninvolved, though others disagree with me.

Those interested in historic recordings of this work must investigate Bruno Walter's "live" 1936 recording made in Vienna (Dutton CDEA 5014 or Pearl CD 9413) with the pre-war Vienna Philharmonic and soloists Charles Kullmann and Kerstin Thorborg who would all would propel this recording into my front rank were it not a question of the limited audio. As well as this there is an even better "live" recording from Amsterdam in 1939 where the Concertgebouw Orchestra is conducted by Carl Schuricht (Archiphon ARC-3.1 or Grammofono 2000 AB 78553) with Thorborg, dark and elemental, again the contralto partnering this time the superb Carl Martin Ohmann. Once more limited audio prevents this remarkable recording making it into my short list. I include these two recordings here because I believe they tell us much about Mahler performing practice pre-war and open an artistic window on a world now lost. Here are two of the three great Mahler orchestras in their golden eras, palpably still in touch with the way they would have played under Mahler himself, and as such of crucial importance to lovers of Mahler's music. The Schuricht recording also records an infamous incident in a quiet section of the last movement where a woman in the audience calls out to the conductor, much to the annoyance of the rest of the audience: "Deutschland uber alles, Herr Schuricht !" Carl Schuricht, a German, was a late replacement for a sick Willem Mengelberg and the atmosphere in the hall, weeks after the outbreak of war, must have been electric. Sarcastic protest against Schuricht's presence or support for the monsters of Nazism that were sweeping away so much of the old Europe that gave rise to the work being performed and the people who it honoured ? We shall probably never know. Whatever, the incident sends a shiver down the back and lends an extra drama to what is already a remarkable performance and reminds us that music had central importance in people's lives at that time, and should do so now.

There are more recordings of this work but the ones I have dealt with in detail are the ones I believe represent the very best and are not let down by the contribution of one of the three protagonists. This is principally why I have no place in my short list for otherwise fine recordings by Tennstedt and Solti where I think the contribution of the contraltos is the fatal flaw, or Giulini where it's the tenor who spoils things, along with a feeling that the conductor isn't quite inside the piece. I've also left out Reiner because, superb though his two singers are, on this occasion the conductor's legendary coldness leaves me equally cold in a work where personal involvement is crucial. I also believe Barenboim and Von Karajan aren't sufficiently Mahlerian enough to allow their recordings to match the best. People whose opinion I value sing the praises of Gary Bertini on EMI. His recording boasts the splendid Ben Heppner as tenor soloist who can stand comparison with Schreier and Wunderlich, but his mezzo is Marjana Lipovsek who let down the Solti recording and I'm afraid does the same here. These are all very personal reactions but, as I explained, this is a work that goes to the very core of personal taste in all Mahlerians and I am no exception.

I'm hard-pressed to recomend one recording above all. If I could have Peter Schreier and Janet Baker with the Philharmonia Orchestra of 1963 conducted by Jascha Horenstein and recorded by Rattle's engineers "live" in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, I would be satisfied. Janet Baker is, in my view, the greatest exponent of the contralto songs and for those of the tenor I would award that palm to Peter Schreier from among those in my short list. But Fritz Wunderlich is not far behind him and neither is John Mitchinson. The Leppard recording is the one I reach for most often, followed closely by the Horenstein and then the Klemperer. Horenstein goes far deeper than Leppard but their orchestra is not of the top flight. Klemperer goes deep also, has a fabulous orchestra and two great soloists, but he does slow down in those central songs. For the best all round version go for Sanderling who approaches Horenstein, has a fine orchestra, one very great soloist and one very good one, and all in a nicely balanced recording. But no Mahlerian's library should have only one, or even two, recordings of this endlessly fascinating and moving work.

Selected Recordings

Peter Schreier, Birgit Finnila, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Sanderling: Berlin Classics (0094022BC).   Crotchet   Amazon
Richard Lewis, Lili Chookasian, Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy: Sony (SBK 53 518)   Crotchet   Amazon
Fischer-Dieskau , James King , Vienna Philharmonic Bernstein: Decca "Legendary Performances" (466 381 2)   Crotchet   Amazon
John Mitchinson, Alfreda Hodgson , BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra Horenstein: Music and Arts (CD 728)   Crotchet   Amazon
Fritz Wunderlich,  Christa Ludwig , New Philharmonia Klemperer: EMI (CDM 5 66892 2)   Crotchet   Amazon
Julius Patzak, Kathleen Ferrier, Vienna Philharmonic  Walter Decca (414 194-2)
  Crotchet   Amazon

© Tony Duggan November 1999

New Reviews

Horenstein and Leppard March/April 2000 reviewed very favourably by Tony Duggan but Marc Bridle disagrees

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