Unforgettable concert-hall impressions of Rattle conducting Mahler’s Song of the Earth have been of catharsis achieved with the help of a female soloist – Jessye Norman at the Proms and the late, lamented Alfreda Hodgson. Yet it is not Thomas Hampson’s fault if the recorded experience seems ultimately less involving. Mahler’s stipulations suggest a baritone as a possible substitute, not an equal first choice; the vocal line now observes the bewitching orchestral action high in the trees above, as it were, rather than fusing with it in similar registers. It’s only at the very end of the great farewell that Hampson’s crushed-velvet phrases find themselves at one with the orchestra, and at peace with it – which is, perhaps, as it should be.
Rattle’s vision is a consistent one: an overall objectivity throws into relief surging glimpses of luminous beauty and a sustained funeral march with bass lines unforgettably etched – all of which is recorded with stunning presence. Yet even in the tenor songs, where Peter Seiffert comes almost as close to the lyric-heroic ideal as Wunderlich (for Klemperer on EMI), there’s still a sense of two planes, of a human observer in a cartoon wonderland. It’s an interesting idea – not the whole, searing story, certainly, but compellingly executed at the very highest level. David Nice