Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
Ernst Haeflinger (tenor) Nan Merriman (contralto)
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
rec. 3-6 December 1956, Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Reviewed as a download from a press preview
BEULAH 1PDR66 
Like London buses, Beulah reissues of Mahler’s Das Lied von Erde have come along in a threesome. They transport us back to a time when releases of Mahler’s music were still relatively rare. Of the three just put out by the indefatigable folk at Beulah, Walter in Vienna with an ailing Ferrier is the most, perhaps undeservedly, celebrated. After that, Reiner in Chicago is at least well known if chronically underrated (review). This present release from van Beinum is probably the most overlooked of the three yet might well have a claim to being the finest of them all. I hope to review the other two individually in due course.
From its confident opening onwards, it is obvious that the Amsterdam Mahler tradition is not limited to Mengelberg and Haitink. Conductor and orchestra have this music imprinted in their musical DNA. The contrast to Reiner in this opening song is startling. We are most certainly in old Europe. Beulah have rounded out some of the shriller edges to the sound compared to its 2018 Decca version and I have to say that suits the more blended sound Van Beinum coaxes from the Concertgebouw. This more string anchored sound is less transparent than Reiner conjures up in Chicago but it gives huge emotional heft to the climax of the opening song: this ape really howls!
This riper, more late Romantic approach means that the two big moments of Der Einsame in Herbst bloom magnificently with the otherwise tastefully restrained Nan Merriman really opening up her lungs. If Reiner and Forester achieve a greater sense of existential isolation at the end of the song, Van Beinum and Merriman bring before our ears the musical equivalent of a Chinese landscape painting.
The heavier, more traditional orchestral textures of this Dutch recording do mean that some strain can be heard in the singing of that old pro of Das Lied, Ernst Haeflinger. Frankly, he is no match for Wunderlich for Klemperer or even the fresh voiced singing of Richard Lewis for Reiner but his pointing of the words is exemplary and he is eminently musical in his overall approach. He is certainly to be preferred to the laboured Patzak for Walter. More importantly his approach is in total communion with that of his conductor.
There is a tannic dryness to the Concertgebouw woodwind which has always suited Mahler’s music. The rhythmic figures on the clarinets throughout the Abschied have a tartness that approaches the ideal. Conversely, in the more expansive moments of this colossal final song, the Concertgebouw strings phrase Mahler’s melodies with the consummate ease of someone breathing in and out. Van Beinum sensibly feels no need to intervene excessively, looking forward to Haitink’s manner in this composer’s music. There is a certain irony in that, much though I adore lots of Haitink’s Mahler, I have never cared for his Das Lied, Janet Baker notwithstanding.
Van Beinum is less driven than Reiner in this last movement, less seductive than Walter at his best (my favourite is a New York off air version with Ferrier in much better form than she was in Vienna, modern technology has mercifully made this recording sound a bit less like it was recorded at the bottom of a swamp), less implacable than Klemperer but there is a great deal to be said for letting the orchestra get on with playing the notes. Unlike Walter in his later Viennese studio version where he is inclined to let the music ramble a little, Van Beinum has a clear focus where he is going from the very first note. No fuss, no melodrama. This might sound a little uninvolved and uninvolving but the climaxes when they come emerge seamlessly out of the musical argument with no need of frantic underlining to generate excitement.
The great glory of this performance is Merriman’s singing of the Ewig passage with which the work closes. Any lover of great singing will be enraptured. I mentioned earlier the way her tasteful restraint blossoms into full glorious voice in Der Einsame. That section is surely meant to prefigure the deeper, more intense experience of Das Lied and so it does with Merriman’s singing. Typically of this performance there is little grandiloquent or operatic about her manner and the Concertgebouw seem as captivated by her as I was.
The best conductors always know that the only true climax to this immense song lies in its conclusion and, as with Walter at his best, the listener might feel a little shortchanged by the monumental orchestral interlude that lies at the centre of the movement until, that is, we reach an outpouring like this at the end.
The more rounded, mellow sound that Beulah produce on this release has, to my ears, a transformative effect wholly in keeping with Van Beinum‘s conception of the music. This is a warm hearted, generous, sometimes slightly reticent Das Lied which, if the listener is patient, delivers a genuinely moving climax at the end. This isn’t expressionist Mahler and the sound on this issue isn’t edgy but rich and refined. By contrast in this same section there is an unfortunate acidity to both the upper strings and, more unfortunately, to Merriman’s voice on the 2018 Decca release and it makes such a difference that I would say if you think you know this performance, get this new Beulah version because it will change your mind.