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MAHLER: Das Lied Von Der Erde    Jon Villars (Tenor) Michelle DeYoung (Mezzo) Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue  Reference Recordings RR-88CD

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The range of the sound on this recording is evident from the beginning with a rich and reverberant audio picture for Jon Villars to then enter revealing a voice of honeyed lyricism. It's not an especially varied performance that he gives of the first song, however. As will prove in the whole of his contribution, his stress is on beauty of tone and lyrical delivery: the singer-actor rather than the actor-singer. The "Dunkel ist das leben" refrains that punctuate the first song, for example, are not delivered with the world-weary quality others rightly find and I confess to missing that somewhat, but others will prefer this "song" sung rather than "acted". In the expressionist centrepiece, where the singer has a nightmare vision of an ape cavorting over graves in the moonlight, we come to an acid test for the singer whatever his approach. Villars never sounds strained as some can which, though a tribute to his artistry, does mean we are robbed, perhaps, of the added element of manic drama that James King, for example, finds for Bernstein. But I enjoyed the way Eji Oue and the orchestra rounded off the song with an emphatic crunch of exclamation at the end, a rhetorical full stop, reminiscent of the same moment under Bernstein again.

This will prove a rare piece of concert hall theatre from this conductor as the opening of the second song confirms textural refinement to be Eji Oue's prime concern. Right the way through, the varnish on Mahler's "chinoiserie" is much thicker than under most conductors and this is certainly aided by the rich upholstery of the recording. This approach may be a problem for those who, like me, think the whole work, and this second song particularly, should allow for a slightly more astringent sound palette, but there's no doubting the excellence of what is achieved. Michelle DeYoung herself seems set further back  than her partner and her's is also a lighter voice than we are sometimes used to in our mezzos and contraltos. But her awareness of the meaning of the words is clearly evident from the start and more than makes up for any slight lack of the real contralto's tone. Her description of the little lamp burning out with a splutter, for example, is exemplary though doesn't quite approach the depth of meaning it has under Janet Baker (for me the finest female exponent of these songs) or Christa Ludwig. "Sonne der liebe....", which is the first time any real warmth enters the song, reveals the full glory of DeYoung's voice, again sure of her words and their meaning.

The accompaniment to the third song gets a little lost in the large acoustic space suggesting to me a more intimate production might have helped this performance even more. But I must add that this is marginal and, as elsewhere, the gain in richness and the feeling that you are present at a performance more than compensates. Jon Villars alters his tone in this song as he should, though, again, there are other singers who manage an even greater sense of involvement. In the fifth song he brings a real element of fantasy to the central stanza and the arrival of Spring. Again you cannot praise the beauty of his singing too highly. Other singers might act out the part, becoming more intoxicated as the song wears on, (like Peter Schreier), but that would not be in keeping with the more patrician style Villars has established and which is just as valid and engrossing.

In the fourth song Michelle DeYoung really makes us see through her eyes the girls picking flowers by the river. Then in the central section, where she has to describe the bursting on to the scene of the young men on horseback, she acquits herself better than many in what must be a passage singers approach with dread. She is helped here by a very bouncy accompaniment from Eiji Oue and the orchestra, depicting very frisky horses indeed. Then in her delivery of the final lines that start "In the flashing of her large eyes, in the darkness of her passionate glance....." Miss DeYoung projects all the feminine allure you could want. No wonder the boys on horseback stopped for a look.

The final song, "Der Abscheid" ("The Farewell"), crowns this fine performance admirably. It finds DeYoung at her most persuasive and her conductor sustaining the longest of spans with superb concentration right from the start. A special words of praise for his orchestra here. It sounds like one take and all the better for that.. There is a splendid sense of pregnant anticipation in the opening passages, for example, with the all important lower registers of the orchestra caught beautifully by the recording, as they are all the way through. Then with what aching beauty are the most intimate sections put across, especially when set against a funeral march interlude more impressive for its noble restraint. The passage that leads back to the re-appearance of the singer put me in mind of Bruno Walter's "live" recording in Vienna in 1936, and there can be no higher praise than that.

So this is a recording of real stature, one that I think will repay repeated listening. Perhaps one of those recordings which, like Horenstein's, reveals its secrets over time, which means I'm not yet certain whether it will challenge the very greatest before us - Klemperer, Horenstein, Sanderling, Bernstein and Walter - but it seems in with a chance. If it does fall short, it does so because of its stress on textural purity and beauty of tone by both orchestra and soloists at the expense of some psychological depth. But here I may be damning with feint praise, especially if this kind of approach is what you desire and think appropriate. If it is, buy with confidence.


Tony Duggan


Tony Duggan

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