Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900, revised 1910) [53:00]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884, revised 1896) [16:32 & 15:42]
Margaret Ritchie (soprano Das Lied von der Erde (1909) [60:44]
Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum
ELOQUENCE 482 8147 [69:41 + 76:35]
Eduard van Beinum was the conductor on one of the first LPs I ever bought, four Rossini overtures on Decca’s Ace of Clubs label. The name “Concertgebouw” was a fascinating one, too, culminating only last year in my first visit to that wonderful hall. In subsequent years I have never been disappointed by a performance by this conductor and his superb orchestra. I was certain, then, that this collection would delight me, and so it turned out.
Das Lied von der Erde is horribly difficult to bring off in concert. How to establish the right atmosphere at the close in an air-conditioned hall with rustling of programmes and sneezing of people? There are fewer distractions at home, but the singers still have to make themselves heard above the orchestra, even when helped by forward placing such as here. Haefliger, who also sang on Bruno Walter’s unforgettable New York recording, is magnificent. (I have always preferred this to Walter’s Vienna performance with Patzak and Ferrier. We all have our funny little ways.) He is well on top of the notes, but never lets us forget what a heroic effort is required to sing the work. Excellent throughout, his reading of the fifth song is perhaps the most remarkable. This can sometimes seem like a drunken stopover on the way to the “Abschied”, but Haefliger makes much more of it than that. Just listen, as the drunkard hears a bird singing and asks if Spring has arrived already. This is only one example of the singer’s subtle variation of vocal colour and superb mastery of phrasing, even when singing against full orchestra.
Not everyone will react favourably to Nan Merriman’s rapid vibrato, but I can only encourage listeners to get accustomed to it. After that, the rewards are great. Like the tenor, she works hard at bringing out the meaning of the words, and in the fourth song seems really to be telling us the story of the young maidens who are disturbed by a rather loutish group of young horsemen while they are picking lotus flowers. At a tempo no slower than in rival performances she avoids gabbling in the passage that tells of the young men’s arrival. The second song rises to a climax as passionate as any I have ever heard, and Merriman is sublime in the long, crucial final song, her closing repetitions – “Ewig, ewig” – as intimate, lonely and resigned as you are likely to hear.
None of this would be of much moment were it not for the fact that you have, in Eduard van Beinum, one of the finest of Mahlerians, and in the Concertgebouw, a peerless orchestra. The wind soloists are superb, particularly the first oboe. Two flutes play three successive near-identical bars and you know without looking at the score that the first is marked forte, the second piano and the third pianissimo, a reflection of the conductor’s exigence as well as individual players’ attention to detail. Van Beinum is as magnificent in the Mahlerian ebb and flow of the first song as he is at bringing out the significance of the accompaniment in the introduction to the second. The irresistible unison winds have never sounded so Chinese in the third song, and just listen to the skilful way he directs the coda of the fourth, keeping a constant basic pulse that, crucially, never slows down – Mahler marks no rallentando – but which nonetheless admits expressive rhythmic freedom. Van Beinum’s control over the long, final song is masterly.
This performance was recorded in 1956 but few if any allowances have to be made for the sound. Only occasionally does the forward placing of the soloists cover orchestral detail, and this is more than compensated by the scores of other details that you will not have noticed in other performances. It is a mono recording, though, and for that reason alone many collectors will not want to think of it as their principal version. I am devoted to Bernstein’s Vienna Philharmonic reading (Decca), but that is with Fischer-Dieskau instead of a mezzo, just as the score allows – which suits me perfectly well. Janet Baker is incomparable, with Haitink (Philips) and Kubelik (Audite). Amongst more recent readings, Jonathan Nott’s superbly recorded performance on Tudor is very fine indeed, but that is with baritone too. I am trying hard to think of a performance where the two soloists, the orchestra and the conductor are in the same league as this one, and I am having serious difficulty. The only negative – and there would have to be one – is that five or six seconds of silence between each song is not nearly enough in this particular work.
The performance of the Fourth Symphony was recorded just two months before I was born, so I prefer not to think of it as a historic recording! It was set down by the classic Decca team of John Culshaw and Kenneth Wilkinson, which goes some way to explaining why the sound, despite its vintage, is no barrier to listening pleasure. Indeed, one is struck constantly by the thought that contemporary audiences were supremely lucky to be able to hear an orchestra that made such a glorious noise. The strings, in particular, are absolutely sumptuous.
The performance is a fascinating one. The Fourth is usually thought of as Mahler’s most genial creation, which is probably the case. But this performance sets off at a faster pace than we are used to, giving the impression that there is urgent and pressing business to be dealt with. Van Beinum watches over the movement’s multiple tempo changes like a hawk. In many places he seems to want to underline the abrupt contrast that they produce, yet everything is integrated into a convincing and logical whole. The second subject is marked Cantando, and the strings really do sing out at that point. Overall, though, this movement, at 15:08, more than a minute faster than the swiftest competitor on my shelves – and four minutes in advance of the slowest – contains more Mahlerian neurosis than we are used to hearing in this symphony.
The scherzo is similarly driven, though it is not only the tempo that allows the players to bring out the slightly demonic, grotesque nature of much of the movement. The third movement is marked only “Ruhevoll” – tranquil or peaceful. Franz Welser-Möst (EMI, 1988) adds more than four minutes to van Beinum’s twenty for this movement. The Dutch performance achieves real peace and tranquillity, though, proving, not for the first time, that choice of tempo is only one element in the equation. I have always been puzzled by the brief intrusion of something like circus music in this movement, and van Beinum is no more successful than any other performance at elucidating its meaning, or its purpose. This is just a personal view, as is the feeling that, beautifully though the closing pages are played, the performance of this movement never quite regains its composure after that curious interlude. The finale is given a lovely performance. The English soprano Margaret Ritchie adopts a no-nonsense approach, even as far as the opening of the final verse which is meant to be both tender and mysterious. She is punctilious with Mahler’s markings otherwise, and her tuning is impeccable. Do not expect anything like Mojca Erdmann (Nott, Tudor, 2008) or Miah Persson (Fischer, Channel Classics, 2009), two fabulous performances. They did not sing like that in 1952, and Ritchie’s performance can sound a little matronly. This should not bother you: her “child’s view of heaven” is a simple and unsophisticated one that perfectly complements the conductor’s view of this remarkable masterpiece.
Following each of the major works is a performance of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. This is generous programming, and the performances are interesting, but it would have been better to place them first on each disc, so allowing you to sit in silence as the symphony or Das Lied fades into silence. The piercing upper register of Polish mezzo Eugenia Zareska’s striking voice is complemented by a strong chest register, and she enters fully into the spirit of these elusive songs. Her German pronunciation occasionally hangs fire. Nan Merriman’s performance was recorded nearly a decade later, in the same sessions as Das Lied. The difference in the recorded sound is striking. The orchestra, too, sounds more at home in Mahler than did the London Philharmonic. Merriman takes the second song faster than Zareska, and the result is less rustic, though the song rises to a truly passionate climax. The performance of the whole cycle would have been more appealing, more endearing, with a little more truly quiet singing.
In line with general Eloquence policy, the booklet contains an excellent note about the performers by Niek Nelissen. There are no texts or translations.
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900, revised 1910) [53:00]
Margaret Ritchie (soprano), Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, April/May 1952
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884, revised 1896) [16:32]
Eugenia Zareska (mezzo-soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, November 1949 and December 1947
Das Lied von der Erde (1909) [60:44]
Ernst Haefliger (tenor), Nan Merriman (contralto), Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 3-6 December 1956
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [15:42]
Nan Merriman (contralto), Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 8-12 December 1956