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CD Review

Live in Vienna

* Hilde Gueden, soprano
** Kathleen Ferrier, alto
** Julius Patzak, tenor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Andromeda 5041 2CDs
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The chief attraction of this reissue on Andromeda is the classic performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde under Bruno Walter with iconic soloists, alto Kathleen Ferrier and tenor Julius Patzak (then aged 40 and 54 respectively) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra recorded live on May 18 1952 in Vienna. It was Walter, of course, who conducted the Lied's first performance in Munich in November 1911, not long after Mahler's death.

This connection gives Walter's three commercial recordings greater authority and authenticity in many people's minds. Variously reissued by sundry labels in the intervening years, Walter made three recordings of the work: in 1936 in Vienna the conductor had Kerstin Thorborg and Charles Kullman with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (originally on Pristine Audio PASC108); in 1960 in New York with Mildred Miller and Ernst Haefliger and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Sony CD SMK64455). Between these comes the current account, originally released on Decca. Indeed, Ferrier herself was to die at the end of the following year, in October 1953. Then Walter famously wrote "The greatest thing in music in my life has been to know Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order." Quite a statement. It's tempting to map onto her stunning singing a sense that this was her last great performance. But her detachment and professional approach to music, any music, means that her singing stands on its own regardless of what we know about circumstance.

Walter and Ferrier first performed the work together at the Edinburgh Festival in 1947. The present, prized, recording exposes the singer's emotionally draining, almost unbearably intimate yet un-histrionic involvement with the Lied. She draws Mahler's exploration of the limits of both worldliness and the eternal in ways that few, if any, singers have ever done. Her "Abschied" lasts almost half an hour. Its intensity means that this is unlikely to be a Lied which you'll pull out to listen to just because you're in the mood, or when working your way through a Mahler cycle. The CD preserves a special occasion with a special performance by special performers – Ferrier in particular.

Patzak's detachment and experience also make him ideal for the tenor songs in Das Lied. His delivery is idiomatic but not cold, although dignified rather than as "involved" as is Ferrier. Particularly striking are some of the sections of the Vienna Philharmonic. There is a precision, an attention to individual sound production and a concern to mould and blend specific combinations of textures enhancing Mahler's uniquely hybrid symphonic and poetic conception of the work by musicians, some of the older of whom may just possibly have played under Mahler himself (he was Abonnementdirigent from 1898 to 1901). The older Viennese tradition certainly survives in this sound. Walter is on record as saying that the VPO is the epitome, the embodiment, of what an orchestra "should" sound like, what a symphony orchestra would produce if the best and best-established archetypes of large ensemble playing somehow had to be re-invented this late in the day. So what he elicits ought to satisfy. It does.

But at the same time neither the orchestra nor the two soloists (nor Gueden on the Fourth, for that matter) are in any way neutral, inoffensively plain or safe. There is much character and individuality from start to finish. Just that it's extremely polished and accomplished.

There are two other works on this budget price two-CD set: paired with a lively account of Mozart's Symphony #38 (K504, The "Prague") is Mahler's Fourth in another live recording three and a half years after "Das Lied" with soprano Hilde Gueden. It exudes charm and style. Above all, Walter retains a control that emphasizes the peaks, chiefly the inexorable slow movement of the symphony that enhances the beauty of its melodies and harmonic world so well. You might think that this Fourth would – after 60 years – have a boxy or thin mono sound. In fact the engineers at Andromeda have done a good job of remastering. They have elevated the sense of presence for both these recordings without allowing potential noise or too stilted an atmosphere to spoil our immediate access to the music. Again, the individual instruments of the VPO (the oboe at the start of the Fourth's first movement [CD.2 tr.4], for instance) are remarkably clear and characterful. Wrong notes there certainly are – or at least are noticeable – but to no great detriment of characterful and engaging performances.

The sound quality of these mono recordings from 60 years ago, then, is neither artificially expansive nor particularly generous. Yet in the cases of all three works, there is a crispness and clarity that does both the voices and individual instruments real justice – from the mellow flute and plangent harp in Das Lied to the spontaneous pizzicati. Ferrier's lovely, rich, full-toned voice benefits particularly from the preservation which the engineers have wrought on the old media – although some will find projection just a little lacking in the "Abschied" compared with most modern recordings. On the other hand, it's probably a more satisfying transfer than that of the Columbia (Sony) set. In short, these CDs are very easy to listen to; your concentration on the music is facilitated. The two half-sides of just the track details which come on a single folded sheet as documentation are a disappointment. These are attractively-priced releases. They have immense historical value. But are also performances to revel in and reflect on in their own right. Mahler enthusiasts without these particular performances should not miss them. Lovers of the best historic recordings of the repertoire will not be disappointed either.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey