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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder (1901-1904) [29:15]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888-1889) [30:11]
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 17 February 1979 (Strauss), 30 June 1983 (Mahler); Herkulessaal, Munich. ADD
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Presto
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (German & English)
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER MPHIL0006 (9305211296) [60:49]

I suspect most listeners associate the larger-than-life Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, with the music of Anton Bruckner. I shall never forget flicking through TV channels on a sleepless night and alighting on his Munich Phil performance of the mighty Eighth, filmed at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in October 1990. It was an overwhelming experience, which renewed my flagging interest in those symphonies. Years later, I reviewed his remarkable video of the Seventh, made with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1992; not only was it one of my top picks for 2012, it’s also one of the finest Bruckner interpretations I’ve ever heard. Incidentally, that Eighth has been released on DVD, albeit as part of a boxed set, and, at silly prices, on Altus CD and single-layer SACD.

Then, in another late-night session, this time on the Internet, I saw a reference to this Mahler/Strauss coupling, with the marvellous mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender in Kindertotenlieder. Shortly afterwards, Ralph Moore gave it a glowing review on MusicWeb, at which point I succumbed and bought the high-res download. Like Ralph, I’ve long admired Fassbaender, having first heard her in Karl Böhm’s final recording, a profoundly moving Beethoven’s Ninth with the Wiener Philharmoniker and a quality quartet (Deutsche Grammophon). She is no stranger to Mahler’s music, having recorded it with the likes of Rafael Kubelík, Klaus Tennstedt, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Riccardo Chailly.

This is not Fassbaender’s only Kindertotenlieder; she recorded it with Tennstedt and the NDR Sinfonieorchester in 1980 (Profil), and, nine years later, with Chailly and the DSO Berlin (Decca/Presto). Both are available as 16-bit downloads, but neither has a Pdf booklet. Clearly, some labels still haven’t read the memo: it’s simply not acceptable to offer digital product without supporting notes, even less so when it’s often priced well above the RRP of the equivalent CD. Munich Phil releases include booklets, in this case with the sung texts.

From the opening of Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, it’s clear we’re in for something rather special. The orchestral playing is luminous, Fassbaender’s singing is finely – and feelingly – calibrated, and the recording is both warm and spacious. The important harp part is especially well caught. Goodness, it’s difficult to believe the concerts on this album – 24/96 remasters of analogue tapes – were recorded nearly 40 years ago. Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen is simply ravishing, the soloist’s delivery firm, clear and effortlessly extended. There’s some hardness at the top end, but that’s not uncommon with transfers from pre-digital sources. However, it matters not a jot in the presence of such time-suspending loveliness.

Celibidache phrases most sensitively, and springs the rhythms of Wenn dein Mütterlein in a most natural way. The Munich Phil, of which he was music director from 1979 to 1996, are poised and polished, but never at the expense of innigkeit; and, not as eccentric as this conductor often was, he secures playing that’s limpid, not limp-wristed. Also, there’s a penetrating clarity here – the colour and nuances of Mahler’s score have seldom been so unerringly uncovered – but then Celi has a way of transforming the familiar into something new and fresh. As I’ve already discovered, he certainly does that with Bruckner; what a pity he and his fine band didn’t record more Mahler.

As for Fassbaender, she’s fearless in the last two songs, the tiniest orchestral details revealed – and revelled in – as they rarely are. The horns deserve special praise here, their beautifully blended delivery bringing to mind that of their Berlin Radio counterparts in that classic Schwarzkopf/Szell recording of Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder. But fine playing and sound aside, it’s the startling synergy of Fassbaender’s partnership with Celi, like Schwarzkopf’s with Szell, which sparks music-making of such a high and elusive order. That said, her first Kindertotenlieder is decent enough, even if Tennstedt is too brisk for my taste, but I don’t share Ralph’s admiration of Chailly, who seems efficient rather than inspired in this rep.

For years my go-to version of Tod und Verklärung has been Karajan’s analogue BP one – his digital remake, immaculately done, just isn’t as movingly intense – but, as always, Celi has something new to say about this score. Not only does he shape and build the music with quiet, irresistible authority, he also creates a dark, velvety orchestral blend that suits the piece very well indeed. Yes, there’s a hint of hardness, and some congestion, in the tuttis, but then the 1979 sound isn’t as revealing or as refined as the later one. Again, that’s a minor caveat, given the surge and sweep of this performance, its deep, tugging undertow. No, Karajan is still my top choice, although Celi runs him very, very close. The audience in both concerts is commendably quiet and there’s no applause. The detailed liner-notes are a welcome bonus.

Magnificent Mahler and strong Strauss, both in very good sound; unmissable.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Ralph Moore (Recording of the Month)


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