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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09)
Mildred Miller (mezzo); Ernst Haefliger (tenor)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, 18-25 April 1960

Back in 2006 I reviewed this recording when it was issued in Sony Classical’s Great Performances series. Now it’s the latest Bruno Walter recording to receive XR re-mastering from Andrew Rose.

This was the last of three commercial recordings of Das Lied von der Erde made by Bruno Walter. The earlier ones were in 1936 - the first recording of the work – and the celebrated 1952 traversal, with Kathleen Ferrier memorably expressive. Walter had a particular authority in this score for he conducted its première in 1911. In my 2006 review I noted that, by the evidence of the clock, Walter grew more expansive in the work over the years; his 1936 version, recorded live, took 57:02, the 1952 recording played for 60:19 and this 1960 traversal adds another three minutes. This trend towards longer performances is fairly typical of how Walter’s timings for other Mahler scores developed over time. The 1960 recording sessions began three days after Walter conducted Das Lied for the last time in New York though in that concert performance the tenor was not Ernst Haefliger but Richard Lewis.

It may be worth summarising the thoughts that I had in 2006 on this recording. I felt it was a fine performance though lacking just a little of the tautness and urgency of Walter’s earlier accounts, in which number I also included a 1948 live account, also with Ferrier, issued by the New York Philharmonic as part of a lavish boxed set of Mahler broadcast performances from 1948 to 1982 (review). I described Haefliger as sensitive, though not as heroic in timbre as some tenors I’ve heard. I was equivocal about Mildred Miller: I thought that she sang very well but that she sounded somewhat cool or detached. As for Walter’s conducting, I acknowledged the deep understanding in his conducting but felt that his earlier readings were a bit tauter. It’s been interesting to revisit the recording in this new transfer and to see if I still stand by those earlier judgements.

I did a straight A/B comparison, listening to each movement in turn and making no adjustments whatsoever to the controls on my system. In the case of ‘Der Abschied’ I divided the song into three quite arbitrary sections, listening to each section in both transfers. In each case I listened to the Sony transfer first.

To be honest, once I’d listened to the first song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ in both versions I’d largely made up my mind. The Sony transfer is quite good but the Pristine is significantly better. The overall aural image is sharper; the sound is brighter, fuller and has greater impact. There’s also more space around the sound; one has a sense of the natural resonance of the hall.

The chief beneficiary of the sonic improvement is Ernst Haefliger whose voice comes across as rounder and fuller. There’s also more room around his voice. As for the orchestra, that too sounds more immediate and ‘present’. In this opening song I noted a greater degree of richness to the horn tone. At around 4:20, at the start of the orchestral passage that leads up to ‘Das Firmament blaut ewig’, the sound of the violin melody is more winning than in the Sony transfer; there’s more sheen. In my first review I expressed disappointment at a lack of intensity in the passage beginning ‘Seht dort hinauf! Im Mondschein auf dem Gräbern’. The passage still isn’t as terrifying as it should be but in this new transfer it’s a lot better because Haefliger’s voice has much more presence. After my 2006 review was published one of our regular readers, Martin Walker, put a most interesting note on the Message Board in the course of which he suggested that the lack of intensity may well be attributable to Walter’s slow pacing at this point which meant his singer was put under insufficient pressure. I think that’s a very tenable argument.

Now I’m going to move straightaway to consideration of ‘Der Abschied’. Immediately we notice an improvement in the Pristine transfer in that the soft gong strokes project so much better than in the Sony version: the sound resonates gently but firmly and it makes such a difference. I now think I underestimated Mildred Miller. She’s not as overtly expressive as, say, Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker or Brigitte Fassbaender (who sings for Giulini) but her singing is poised, the tone is consistently even and pleasing and there is, on reflection, no want of expression. Moving ahead to the closing stages of the movement, at ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ her voice opens up much more fully and satisfyingly in the Pristine transfer, as does the sound of the accompanying violins. I found Miss Miller’s performance of this immense movement much more involving and moving this time and I’m sure that the fact that her voice is now presented to much better advantage is a key factor. The orchestra, too, comes across much better in this new transfer. The long orchestral interlude (14:31–19:59) is well projected in the Sony transfer. However Pristine’s enhanced sonics improve the listening experience significantly. We can now enjoy much greater depth, especially in the bass, and that adds to the power of the music. The doom-laden gong strokes register much more strongly and the extra space round the sound of the orchestra helps also. At the very end of the song there’s a marginal but definite gain in the depth and weight of the soft, low orchestral chords.

The enhancements of this new transfer that I’ve identified in the first and last songs are evident in the other four songs also. In ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ I noted in 2006 that Mildred Miller is poised and touching. That’s even more evident now for the new transfer imparts greater body and warmth to her tone while there’s more definition and detail to the delicate tracery in the orchestral writing. The fact that the sound of Haefliger’s voice now has greater body means that his singing of ‘Von der Jugend’ is much more enjoyable and we can better appreciate the lightness and delicacy that both he and Walter bring to the music.

As for Walter’s conducting, I still feel that there’s greater sharpness and intensity in his earlier readings. However, the mellow character of his reading brings its own rewards and I must not give the impression that this is a performance devoid of drama for such is not the case. We can experience here the fruits of a lifetime’s immersion in Mahler’s music and his experience is priceless: this is an insightful reading.

I’m in no doubt that this is the version of this interpretation to have in your collection. I don’t know from what source Andrew Rose has derived his transfer – mint-condition LPs, I presume – but the results are outstanding. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that the experience of listening to the Pristine transfer is akin to viewing a painting after it as been scrupulously cleaned. This transfer brings new life and depth not just into what we hear but also into the performance and, as I’ve indicated, I think it’s played a significant part in helping me to re-evaluate my thoughts about this recording. I urge admirers of Bruno Walter in Mahler to hear this transfer, even if they possess the recording in an earlier incarnation.

John Quinn

Tony Duggan’s survey of selected recordings of Das Lied von der Erde