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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Karajan Live Vol. 2

Das Lied von der Erde [65:22]
Symphony No 5 [70:27]
Christa Ludwig (alto), Ludowic Spiess (tenor), Horst Laubenthal (tenor)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
Rec. live, Berlin, 14 December 1970 (Lied); Salzburg Festival, 28 August 1973 (Symphony)
Download only
URANIA CP131535 [65:22+70:27]

Herbert von Karajan started conducting Mahler in 1955 when he performed Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Those performances were given in the United States – Chicago and New York – and over the next quarter of a century, despite a narrow interest in the composer, he would become one of its greatest interpreters. He would conduct his first Das Lied von der Erde in 1960 and would in total give thirteen concerts of it (four of which exist from broadcasts) and make one studio recording, in 1973, for Deutsche Grammophon. It remains one of the finest performances of it, but as is so often the case with Karajan one has to turn to his live concerts to find this conductor at his most inspired.

The recording here – originally issued on a Hunt CD from Italy – is unique, not just for Karajan, but for the Das Lied von der Erde discography too. Given in Berlin on 14th December 1970, from a series of concerts that month, it is the only version to use two tenors and one soprano. None of Karajan’s cycles of this work from 1960 attempted this arrangement, and there is even a slight irony as to why he should have done so in 1970; he engaged some of the greatest tenors to sing the part in 1960 so there is scant evidence the performances would have been a disaster. His soprano for all of the concerts then – the first one with the BPO at the end of February in Berlin, the second with the VPO in the middle of March and the sole concert on 26th June to mark the centenary of Mahler’s birth – also with the VPO – used Hilde Rössel-Majdan. His tenors, however, were hardly second rate: Sándor Kónya for the Berlin ones, Fritz Wunderlich for Vienna and Anton Dermota for the Mahler Centenary.

Wunderlich – unless he was having an off day for Karajan, which was unlikely – has generally come closer than most tenors to singing the part in Das Lied von der Erde most successfully. His recording with Klemperer is outstanding, although it was made when Wunderlich was slightly older and his voice at the height of its powers before his sudden death. But, as with almost all recordings of this magnificent work it is the tenor which proves most problematic to cast. The number of distinguished – and undistinguished – tenors who are crushed by the occasional insurmountable difficulty of these songs is quite remarkable.

There are, of course, multiple possibilities for this song cycle and there are recordings which reflect this. Tenor and alto is the most common; but tenor and baritone has been favoured by some (notably Kletski and Bernstein). Most recently, Jonas Kaufmann has chosen to sing the entire cycle.

Karajan’s solution in 1970 was to divide the part into a lyric tenor and one who was closer to a Heldentenor. Karajan might have stamped rather more authority on the idea if he had chosen rather better tenors than he did; the quality of the performance here is not as strikingly brilliant as I’m sure he intended it to be. It is also not immediately apparent which tenor is singing which song – neither Ludowic Spiess nor Horst Laubenthal are especially distinctive singers, though we can largely guess which is which because of where the music lies in Mahler’s orchestration. More notable as a Bach specialist, and the more lyric (just) of the two, Laubenthal sits more comfortably in the terrain of ‘Trunkene’. Spiess, a Romanian, whose vocal chords would eventually suffer irreparable damage – like a great many tenors he would tackle Florestan and Otello too early – is the more dramatic rekindling some of the weight he brought to another Das Lied von der Erde, this one with Janet Baker and Rudolf Kempe in 1975. But the lack of colour in the voices and the blandness of the expression is rather too blanched for this work. Both Spiess and Laubenthal struggle with Mahler’s writing, too. Spiess is unsettling at the top – the wobble becoming quite intrusive at times. Laubenthal lacks confidence at the bottom, however. It is not ideal, and I don’t think either tenor is helped by Karajan’s tendency to plough through parts of the score like a bulldozer.

Christa Ludwig is adequate compensation for a performance which both stutters between its movements and can seem rushed by its conductor. Ludwig would appear on Karajan’s studio recording in 1973, and she would also sing on his finest live performance which was given on 27th August 1972 in Salzburg. The tenor on both was René Kollo – and if only he had been on this 1970 recording it may have been a very different performance indeed. Christa Ludwig, who would sing on so many recordings of Das Lied (Bernstein, Kleiber, Klemperer and Neumann to name just a few) is almost the polar opposite of her tenors and Karajan. She aligns much more closely to the Berliners who, despite Karajan’s oblivious indifference, are at times wonderfully expressive as well as sensitive to much of the score. The tonal warmth, the range of her expression, her ability to elicit such profundity in ‘Der Abschied’ is in a parallel universe to the rest of this performance.

Karajan would never return to this arrangement for Das Lied von der Erde again. There has, to my knowledge, never been another performance which has used three singers either. However, if my recollection is correct Bruno Maderna and Jascha Horenstein exchanged letters about performing Das Lied using this version. It never bore fruit, however, with both dying just three years after Karajan had performed this Berlin Das Lied von der Erde.

The coupling for this Urania set is a live Karajan Mahler Fifth. Dated 1973 only, this is not particularly helpful since Karajan gave three performances of the symphony that year – two in February (one of which was broadcast) and one in August. However, this is the 28th August performance given at the Salzburg Festival so far as I can tell from comparing the Urania performance here with the 17th February 1973 broadcast and the FKM CD from August.

Karajan had an extremely rigid way of performing the Mahler symphonies he conducted and rarely deviated from that. Often they were based around the recordings he made for DG; indeed, this was the case for many works he would only ever play once. (Scheherazade wouldn’t even be so lucky as to get a concert before he recorded it in 1967. Indeed, he played that work neither before nor after that recording).

He only conducted the Fourth in 1980; the Ninth in 1982, for example. Contrary to this rule, Karajan gave no live performances at all before he made his studio recording of Mahler’s Ninth in 1980. He seems to have been drawn to Mahler’s Sixth and Mahler’s Fifth in a rather different way performing both symphonies over a five-year period. It is unusual that his interpretations were often shaped in the studio rather than in the concert hall; for many conductors it is the reverse.

Karajan is most often heard through his studio recordings, but an entirely different picture emerges of him through his concerts. His live Mahler is no exception to this, and no single Mahler symphony demonstrates this more than the two Mahler Ninth’s, taken two years apart. Both are extraordinary, but one can tell which is the studio and which is not. The big perception we have of Karajan is that he was obsessively in search of perfection. His live performances throw caution to the wind in ways which are quite surprising, however. As beautiful as the Berlin Philharmonic sound in this Fifth the playing – especially the brass – can be quite insecure. In part this has to do with Karajan’s willingness to push tempos more aggressively – and often to the limit – than he tends to in the studio and to accent the lines with more danger. The second movement is wonderfully stormy – the imbalance tipping the scales towards the kind of dramatic impulses you don’t hear in his studio Fifth. There is a volatility here, a kinetic frisson which no studio performance could ever hope to replicate. The tension is as tight as a drum; climaxes explode with devastating force. What Karajan also brings to this Fifth is power – the Berliners have tremendous heft; strings are muscular, brass imposing. The sound is rather too high in the treble, but volume up and the Berliners march like no other orchestra in this music.

Karajan takes a touch longer over the Adagietto than some conductors (eleven minutes) but it’s one of the finest you’ll hear. The clock may be somewhat irrelevant here because the gift of keeping the music flowing is entirely in Karajan’s hands and he doesn’t falter for a second in keeping it moving like a slow flood of scorching lava. The intensity is extraordinary; the beauty of the Berlin strings unrivalled right up to that final pianissimo which fades into such serenity it just vanishes. The Adagietto should work up to its crescendo almost unnoticed – it almost always doesn’t – but it’s telling how Karajan manages to do just this. One could argue the richness of the Berlin strings helps. Karajan wasn’t always a flexible conductor and the strings here aren’t always as free as they would become under Abbado, but it’s that inexorable power which makes Karajan’s Fifth such a potent statement; and very few conductors did raw power like Karajan.

It’s easy to get lost in the Rondo of the Fifth. A lot of performances not only start off with a sense of inhibition they also sound slack with it; it’s a similarity it shares with the last movement of Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” and which also traps many conductors. Karajan’s tempos are fast; he grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you with him through a little under fifteen minutes of music and you never quite have time to catch a breath between bar rests. The coda is one of the most wild and exciting on disc (interestingly taken with slightly less of the rubato he used in his February performance which pulled back on the sheer devilry of the ending). It closes what is unquestionably a great Fifth.

The sound on both performances is variable. The 1970 Das Lied von der Erde is in rather distant mono and although there is no difficulty hearing any of the details in the music the acoustic is drier than one would wish. Urania’s transfer of the Mahler Fifth (in stereo) suffers to some degree from the same problem as the FKM CD release – poor track editing. The Urania is significantly worse, however; the track pause between the Adagietto and the Rondo is several seconds long, and with dead silence added rather than natural radio noise; on the FKM that problem isn’t so obvious. The Urania has been transferred at a much brighter level, too, and with rather less richness to the overall picture. They sound differently sourced, not unlikely with this performance since more than one exists from the broadcast. However, the FKM is now out of print, and the Urania is more than satisfactory to hear in what is a sensational Fifth – even if the 1970 Das Lied von der Erde remains something of a curiosity.

Marc Bridle



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