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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder (1901-04) * [23’14"]
Symphony No 4 in G major (1899 – 1900) [49’42"]
*Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); Desi Halban (soprano)
*Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Philharmonic Symphony of New York/Bruno Walter
Rec. *Kingsway Hall, London, 4 Oct 1949; Carnegie Hall, New York, 10 May 1945
NAXOS 8.110876 [73’13"]

This Naxos release, which usefully gathers together two important Mahler recordings from the 1940s, is notable for a couple of ‘firsts’. The performance of Kindertotenlieder was the first recording on which Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier collaborated; and this recording of the Fourth symphony was Walter’s first recording of the work.

The Kindertotenlieder, produced by Walter Legge for Columbia, was the idea of Bruno Walter and followed three concert performances given by him and Ferrier. As the interesting liner notes reveal, the project was not easy to arrange for conductor, soloist and orchestra were all contracted to different recording companies. Happily, these problems were resolved so that this classic account could be set down. One further pleasing consequence was the quid pro quo extracted by Decca, Ferrier’s company. They stipulated that at some future date Walter, a Columbia artist, should make a recording for them. The result, three years later, was the celebrated Vienna recording of Das Lied von der Erde.

This account of Kindertotenlieder is so well known as almost not to require further comment. The cycle sets poems by Friedrich Rückert, which treat of infantile mortality. Mahler, who had lost several siblings in childhood, must have felt great affinity with the sentiments expressed in the poems, which are very emotional, occasionally verging on the mawkish. Ferrier’s great achievement is to sing with consistent and tremendous intensity without ever over-stepping the boundaries of good taste. She displays great empathy and her singing is excellent, nay, inspired throughout. There are some truly elevated passages, such as in the second song at the words "Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen: wir möchten nah dir bleiben gerne!" (track 2, 2’12" – 2’ 43").

The compass of the songs suits Ferrier very well and she enunciates the text with tremendous clarity. Her understanding of the music appears complete and that is certainly true also of Walter who provides her with marvellous support from the VPO. Perhaps the final song is the most successful of all. The stormy music with which it opens has great thrust and the rapt coda (track 5, from 3’00") is deeply moving.

This same recording is also available, as part of a mixed programme sung by Ferrier, as one of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century (EMI 7243 5 66911 2 4). Comparing the two issues I found that the EMI transfer reported a slightly greater immediacy in the orchestral sound and there is more ambience round the orchestra. On both versions Ferrier’s voice, which is quite well forward of the accompaniment, is well recorded. I have a very slight preference overall for the EMI sound, which strikes me as having a bit more richness but the Naxos transfer, from LPs, is perfectly satisfactory and no one buying the disc will have cause for complaint.

In his autobiography "Theme and Variations" (1949), Bruno Walter describes the Fourth symphony as "the idyll among Mahler’s symphonic dramas" and that’s certainly how he presents it here. I was able to compare this performance with a 1955 concert performance with the VPO (Andante 4973) with some interesting results. In 1955 the first movement is just a bit more easeful and the little hesitations and instances of rubato in which this movement abounds seem just a fraction more natural than is the case in 1945 (though the New York account is also convincing). In my notes I’ve written "spontaneous but exact" for the 1955 account; the 1945 version doesn’t quite justify that verdict but, as I say, it’s still very good in its own right. In this New York reading the movement flows easily and logically and the orchestral playing is good. The sardonic scherzo is also well done and there are particularly good violin, horn and clarinet solos to enjoy.

This performance of the slow movement is about the swiftest that I know though I must say I wasn’t conscious of this at all until I came to do comparisons later on in the listening process. Walter plays the movement in 17’28" whereas in 1955 he gave a much more spacious reading which took 19’57". By comparison the classic versions by Szell (Sony) and Reiner (RCA) take 18’57" and 20’52" respectively. Lorin Maazel (Sony) requires 22’31", surely a bit too much of a good thing? I’m bound to say that I like Walter’s genial and spontaneous-sounding way with this movement in 1945 and at no time did I feel that the music was being rushed. I suspect these comparative speeds may be another instance of the extent to which interpreters of Mahler have tended to slow down his music over the years. Two years later Walter set down a superb account of the Fifth symphony in New York, which took just 61 minutes. More tellingly, perhaps, the famous Adagietto lasted a "mere" 7’35" in that recording. Since Walter knew Mahler well is it not likely that his tempi have some degree of authenticity?

Having said that, I’m much less happy with the performance of the finale which speeds by in just 7’24". I’m inclined to think that Szell, in his benchmark performance, is a little too spacious here (10’17") and Reiner’s very persuasive reading lasts 9’37". Walter is much more convincing, I find, in 1955 when he takes 8’ 14" and everything just seems to have that crucial little bit more space to breath. Mind you, matters aren’t helped in 1945 by the soloist, Desi Halban. I’m afraid I find her singing completely lacking in charm and the element of naiveté, so vital in this music. Many of her phrases sound snatched and rushed (though Walter’s fast speed is undoubtedly a contributory factor as well.) Hilde Güden, who sings for Walter in 1955, is much to be preferred here as are Judith Raskin (for Szell), Lisa della Casa (Reiner) and, indeed, Lucia Popp on Tennstedt’s EMI version. The movement should end in trusting tranquillity but the last stanza of the poem, and the gorgeous introduction to it (track 9, from 4’32") sound brisk, even peremptory here, I’m afraid, whereas in the 1955 all is loving and relaxed. It’s unfortunate that the finale rather mars what is otherwise a very enjoyable account of Mahler’s most winning and engaging symphony.

However, overall this is a most successful issue. The transfer of the symphony, again from LP’s, is pretty good (both transfers are the work of Mark Obert-Thorn) and there are interesting notes by Malcolm Walker. This is an ideal opportunity for collectors to acquire a classic account of Kindertotenlieder by a great singer and to experience the work of one of the finest of all Mahler conductors. A self-recommending issue.

John Quinn



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