Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde; Adagietto from Symphony No. 5

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Das Lied von der Erde; Adagietto from Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: Kerstin Thorborg (contralto), Charles Kullman (tenor); Vienna PO/Bruno Walter
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110850 ADD mono (1936, 1938)
Because the music of Mahler plays such a central role in today’s concert life, it’s difficult to believe that before the Sixties record companies were far more reluctant to promote his work. Yet the performances that have been preserved from the earlier part of the 20th century need to be heard and appreciated, not least because they provide a vital link to the interpretative traditions that were established during Mahler’s lifetime.

Advertisement

Without doubt, the conductor who espoused Mahler’s work with the greatest zeal during this period was bruno walter, so it’s entirely appropriate that his first recording of Das Lied von der Erde, made at a concert in Vienna in 1936, should be featured in Naxos’s Great Conductors Series. The virtues of the performance are evident in almost every bar, and are heard to their best advantage in such passages as the lyrical interlude near the end of the first movement, where the gloriously expressive sheen of the Vienna Philharmonic’s strings transcends any limitations in the recording. An additional bonus is Walter’s warm-hearted but refreshingly unsentimental Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony. Mark Obert-Thorn’s exemplary transfer cunningly preserves the highly charged atmosphere of the concert without recourse to fading the ambient sounds of the audience between each song of Das Lied.

It’s a pity that a similar level of sensitivity could not be brought to bear on Archipel’s transfer of the live 1948 recording of the Resurrection Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic under Walter. Given a distinctly limited dynamic range that makes movements such as the contemplative ‘Urlicht’ sound uncomfortably loud, and a strange reverberation that suggests the orchestra is performing in the ticket hall of an underground station, this recording stretches one’s tolerance to the very limit. Things are hardly helped by Archipel’s faulty tracking of the final two movements, and by its failure to provide any documentation on either the music, the background to this particular performance or the specific techniques employed in making the transfer. A similar lack of information accompanies carl schuricht’s 1958 live recording on Living Stage of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Although the sound here is much better than on the Archipel recording, it’s difficult to warm to Schuricht’s gruff no-nonsense approach to the score, which in places seems too literal and bereft of inner passion.

What a relief to turn instead to otto klemperer’s 1951 Holland Festival broadcast performance of Mahler’s Resurrection with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and soloists Kathleen Ferrier and Jo Vincent on glorious form. Although, like Schuricht, Klemperer opts for fast tempi and eschews overstated rubato, there’s so much more subtlety and drive in his interpretation. While this outstandingly dynamic performance has already appeared on a mid-price Decca CD, the new transfer on Guild Historical has great immediacy, and the documentation, which extends to 26 pages and includes full texts and translations, is extraordinarily generous given the price of the disc.

Two more releases of broadcast material from concerts conducted by arturo toscanini, also on Guild, deserve the widest dissemination. The 1947 NBC Symphony Orchestra performance of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet is riveting from start to finish, and a bonus CD, featuring extended excerpts from the maestro’s rehearsals for the concert, conveys an almost unparalleled degree of energy and involvement in the music. The other CD provides excerpts from a 1942 War Bond Concert and a full programme of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and Brahms’s Third from 1938. The Brahms is particularly strong – a far more expansive and fluid performance than the better-known RCA recording of 1952.

One of the very few conductors who rivalled Toscanini for maintaining high levels of physical intensity in performance was leopold stokowski. His 1951 Tchaikovsky Five with the NDR Symphony Orchestra is a tremendously exciting affair, though certain idiosyncratic ways of phrasing melodies might annoy purists. And for all the obvious merits of his performance, I remain distinctly unconvinced by Stokowski’s revised quiet ending to the Romeo and Juliet Overture.

Advertisement

Two contrasting performances of Schumann’s Second Symphony are worth hearing, though neither transfer is ideal. In particular the string opening of dimitri mitropoulos’s 1940 version with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra sounds very woolly, with the all-important trumpet motif placed too far forward. But Mitropoulos always has interesting things to say about the score, even if his penchant for over-accentuated sforzandi becomes a tiresome mannerism. A 1960 performance by sergiu celibidache has the disadvantage of far less refined playing, but there are some compensations, not least the beautifully sustained Introduction to the first movement and a heartfelt Adagio.