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Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)
05 Mar 2009

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

Recorded on 9 November 1959 at Symphony Hall (now Symphony Center), this recent issue of a classic performed of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde translates the then state-of-the-art RCA “Living Stereo” sound for the LP vinyl medium to the enhanced sound currently available in SACD format.

Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

Maureen Forester, contralto; Richard Lewis, tenor, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor.

RCA Red Seal 88697-08281-2 [SACD]

$11.99  Click to buy

As John Newton comments in the notes about the audio technology used in this new release, the quality of the original record was excellent from the start, and that allows for enhancements, rather than restoration in bringing the almost legendary American recording to the twenty-first century. The razor-blades that sound engineers used in 1959 to edit tapes were the best tools available then, but such physical means have given way to digital ones, and the results are evident in this fine issue.

When RCA originally released this recording of Das Lied von der Erde, relatively few recordings were available on LP, but those included the monumental performance of Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Walter. Comparisons of these two great recordings are futile, but they represent two of the finest performances of Das Lied von der Erde on disc. Ferrier’s performance is unquestionably moving, and Forester represents another impressive interpretation of the part. It is fortunate to have the fine recording with Ferrier and Patzak conducted by Walter, the musician responsible for the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde after Mahler’s death. With Reiner’s recording, though, both singers would continue with their careers for years to come. Forester and Lewis would appear again in Das Lied von der Erde in a concert on 16 April1960 at Carnegie Hall, in a performance of the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra led by Bruno Walter. That performance is available on CD, but does not have the sonic presence of the one with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Almost a decade later, in 1967, Forester and Lewis would also recording Das Lied von der Erde with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Georg Szell, but those later performances are not esteemed as highly as the one with Reiner and now reissued in SACD format.

While Reiner’s name is not often included with others of his generation when it comes to performing Mahler’s music, his interpretation of Das Lied von der Erde stands out among his efforts as an impressively persuasive. He brought to the score the virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony and with it came the fine sonic ambience of Orchestra Hall and the recording techniques of RCA, which were the most advanced of the day. The result is a vibrant orchestra sound, with the individual colors of the ensemble emerging readily under Reiner’s leadership. Without a question the Chicago Symphony has a fine blend, but it is possible to hear more distinctly some of the specific sounds in Mahler’s score. From the outset the sound is vibrant, with the horns in the opening passage ringing out the repeated notes that signal the gesture with which the piece begins. Likewise, the characteristic hollow sound of the woodwinds that follows demonstrates the reason that Mahler used those colors in the passage. The eighth-note figures that underscore the vocal line are articulated cleanly, with appropriate separation between them, and the sudden entrances that punctuate some of the phrases in the first piece have a nice resonance. With Lewis, his performance of the ”Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” is impressive, with his diction matching his fine expression, with the descending slide that occurs near the end of the movement beautifully executed. It is unfortunate that some passages of “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (mistranslated in the liner notes as “Wine in Spring” as is “Der Einsame im Herbst” as “Autumn Loneliness” rather than “The Lonely One in Autumn”) show some strain. With the middle of the three tenor pieces, “Von der Jugend” (“About Youth”) the understated tone is entirely appropriate to this number and Lewis conveys the sense of youthfulness implicit in the text.

Maureen Forester brings a full, rich, dark sound to the contralto pieces, and her vibrant voice never blurs. The open tones at the beginning of “Der einsame im Herbst” are engaging, as she blends well with the orchestra as if she were part of a smaller ensemble. This recording captures the sound well so that it is difficult to mistake her distinctive voice in this setting from Hans Bethge’s Chinesische Flöte. Yet with “Von der Schönheit” (“About Beauty”) Forester captures the sense of drama by differentiating so well between the introverted opening section and the more assertive central portion of the song. The full rein of the Chicago Symphony is evident in the middle of the movement, which stands out for its bold statement of exoticism. Yet both Reiner and Forester restrain the ending appropriately and masterfully. In many ways, though, “Der Abschied” poses musical and interpretive challenges for even the finest performers, which Reiner and Forester meet with remarkable style and conviction. After the percussive opening of the movement, Forester is almost subdued in presenting the text. She builds on that opening gradually, and as the first part of “Der Abschied” ends, she is fervent, with a warm, rich approach that stands in contrast to the earlier portion of the movement. In the second half of the movement Forester moves away from this and makes audible the sense of confident resignation found in the text. Her intonation of the final portion of “Der Abschied” is convincing, with Reiner’s command of the Chicago Symphony evident in the finely played conclusion.

With over 50 recordings of Das Lied von der Erde available on CD, a number of fine performances are available. The release of this particular one, though, makes a classic interpretation available for new audiences to enjoy. The already fine sound of the original LP is reinforced in this newly issued CD, which does not merely present what was on the famous LP, but is a reshaping of the original recorded sound. As familiar as the LP may be to some, the CD merits attention, not only as a classic recording, but as a perpetually effective one.

James L. Zychowicz

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