mahler erde reiner beulah

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
Richard Lewis (tenor) Maureen Forrester (contralto)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. 7 & 9 November 1959, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BEULAH 1PDR67 [62]

The word that encapsulates this splendid, underrated account of Das Lied von der Erde from Fritz Reiner is ‘trenchant’. Even Otto Klemperer seems almost giddily sentimental next to the biting intensity of the great Hungarian conductor and his Chicago forces. I start with the conductor since this is very much an account of Mahler’s symphonic song cycle with the emphasis on the symphonic.

A lot about this recording will depend on reactions to the production. Everything is very forward and rather spotlit which given the soloistic nature of Mahler’s orchestration means that the balance is much more artificial than we are used to from modern recordings of the work. This is most definitely a 1950s hifi approach to recording. The absolute certainty of Reiner’s autocratic approach to every element of the music from tone colour to blend to pitch means that it can stand up to what often sounds like forensic scrutiny. It is one of those records where every tiny detail of the orchestration can be heard even where, as in the flurry of plucked things that accompanies the final ecstasies of Der Abschied, I suspect that what Mahler had in mind was a more generalised wash of sound.

Conversely, in the hands of Reiner and the RCA engineers the middle movements are replete with detail, all the better for the conductor’s refusal to indulge these movements in anything like the cutesy or blandly pretty. This sounds like music on the way to Berg and Webern. If this makes it all sound a little grim then that is to miss Reiner’s dynamism. Rather than a Romantic portrait of nature Von der Schönheit, for example, sounds like nature in leaf and bud itself. It made me regret that Reiner never tackled the Third symphony. It is typical of his scrupulousness that he refuses to get carried away with the riotous interlude in the middle of this song and he manages the abrupt transition back to the slower music of the song’s opening better and more elegantly than anyone I have heard.

If this is very much Reiner’s show, he is blessed by two very fine soloists. Richard Lewis’ German pronunciation may be questionable but who cares when we get to hear these songs sung with such naturally breathed ease? It is interesting that, for all his somewhat hard bitten view of the work, Reiner eschewed a tough heldentenor in favour Lewis’ more lyrical voice. The transparency of Reiner’s rendering of Mahler’s accompaniment means that Lewis seldom needs to shout anyway. As with Wunderlich for Klemperer, this kind of voice just sounds inarguably right.

Which brings us to the main event of the work – the mighty Abschied. Somewhat simplistically, I divide performances of this extraordinary movement into those who emphasise that it is in essence a gigantic lied and those who, like Reiner, see it above all as symphonic. It is clearly both and all the best performances recognise this so it is a matter of emphasis. If my fondness for Walter in this movement shows that ultimately I favour the Lieder school – though ironically the best known of his numerous accounts, his famous Vienna taping with a dying Kathleen Ferrier is my least favourite- that is not to say that I don’t rate and love those who take the symphonic path as Klemperer and Horenstein, to name but two, do.

This last song can ramble if the conductor doesn’t have a firm grasp of where they are going. I find Karajan’s studio version interminable in this regard and it is also the issue with the Walter Ferrier version from Vienna. There is absolutely zero risk of this from Reiner. Even the loveliest passages, and the Chicago Symphony play with melting loveliness, are going somewhere with no lingering allowed. Great recordings of this movement capture the sense of a mind in shock following the death of the composer’s daughter – even its most beautiful pages seem to me to grow out of a stunned and terrible wonder. Reiner’s directness catches this quality as well as anyone.

In the big orchestral interlude that divides the two main sections of the movement Reiner reins in the melodrama so that what we get at its climax isn’t just force – though the Chicago brass are caught in terrific form – but an almost unbearable sense of bleak alienation. It is all the more pungent for the way Reiner lets us hear every hue of orchestral writing. The single blaring note on the trombones has nothing grand about it but is deeply disturbing in its almost banality.

Maureen Forrester seems the perfect antidote for those who find Ferrier too fruity in tone. There is a touching honesty to her singing. Perhaps encouraged by her conductor, she lets the music do the work. As a result she is heartbreakingly human in the Ich geh, Ich wandre in die Berge passage that follows the central orchestral interlude where others go for a more disembodied, alienated tone. She sounds like a lost soul wandering through an impersonal world that is by turns terrible and wonderful. At the very end it is as though that lonely figure has dissolved into the landscape itself. It is done with great restraint and is very moving and beautiful. The last note is placed with firm but gentle finality.

So what of this new Beulah reissue? How does it sound? In a word ‘sumptuous’. It might seem peculiar to describe a recording that in many ways is an early peak of what might be thought as the interventionist school of production values as ‘natural sounding’ but that is what Beulah have pulled off. I suspect that subsequent tinkerings with the original sound in later reissues have tended to accentuate the individual components of the sound sometimes at the expense of the overall picture. What Beulah give us is very definitely a mix rather than anything purporting to be how the musicians sounded in the hall but by going back to the original what we hear is a much better balanced auditory picture.

Listen to, as I did, Von der Jugend back to back in the most recent 2009 incarnation from BMG and then this Beulah issue and the differences though subtle are important. The 2009 version draws out, rather impressively as it happens, the woodwind figures that wind like vines about the solo voice. Put on the Beulah and the balance prioritises the tenor with the woodwind still beautifully clear but more purposely as accompanists not the star attraction. Return to the 2009 version and the balance feels a little cluttered leaving me feeling that the singer was having to make himself heard over an undergrowth of beautifully played, beautifully recorded detail.

Take in the entire album and this issue of balance, cumulatively, matters. What the original engineers sent off to be pressed was presumably what they wanted the purchaser of the record to hear when the stylus dropped on vinyl. That is what Beulah have given us here. Some will still find the relative artificiality of the original sound too much but it makes a lot more musical sense as presented by Beulah.

It is strange that this account of Das Lied isn’t better known. Few, if any, have been better played and Reiner’s razor sharp hearing enables us to marvel at not just the impact of Mahler’s scoring but its subtle, water colour washes of delicate sounds. The soloists are first rate and the whole performance is crowned by an appropriately devastating Abschied. Beulah have, I believe, done this recording an immense service by letting listeners hear again what it must have sounded like on release but not as immense a service as they have done to those listeners. Bored of endless average Das Lieds? Try this bracing, dazzling reissue.

David McDade

Availability: Qobuz