Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Julius Patzak (tenor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 15-16 May 1952, Großer Saal Musikverein, Vienna
Reviewed as a download from a press preview
BEULAH 1PDR65 
So much has been written about this celebrated recording that it is hard to know what can be meaningfully added. Beulah have helpfully added an intriguing context for their reissue of it by releasing it at the same time as two other recordings of the same work from the 1950s. Legendary Mahlerian though Walter was the comparison with those alternative versions under the batons of Fritz Reiner and Eduard van Beinum do this present recording few favours. I have reviewed both the van Beinum and the Reiner for MusicWeb International and both are well worth seeking out.
As for the Walter, it may be the most famous of his recordings of Mahler’s mighty song cycle but it is far from his finest. I would go so far as saying that it misrepresents his unique manner with a work which he premiered after the composer’s death. That, in itself, is no guarantee that Walter was one of the greatest interpreters of the work but I should state at the outset that my first among equals preferred version of Das Lied is a 1948 off air recording of Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Set Svanholm and Ferrier as soloists. Obviously there are similarities but in almost every way everyone involved in the New York live performance is on better form. Even the originally terrible recording has been improved beyond recognition by the engineers behind its 2020 release on Somm.
This brings me to the somewhat notorious sound of the original Decca release of this Viennese studio performance. Given the illustrious association between label and venue, it is hard to know what went wrong. It is difficult to believe at points that the violin sound one is hearing is in fact the legendary VPO! The irony is that the truly terrible original sound of the 1948 New York account as buffed up by Somm hardly lags behind the Decca original!
So what have Beulah been able to achieve with this most tricky of briefs? Pretty much every approach to sonic restoration in the book has been thrown at this particular recording and mostly with indifferent results. Beulah’s approach has as much to recommend it as any other. Both Naxos and Archipel, for example, in seeking to tame some of the shrillness in the treble end up accentuating the boxiness of the overall sound picture. Typical of Beulah’s philosophy, they make no apologies for the weaknesses of the original tapes and present it in very bold fashion as if to say Take it or leave it. Decca’s own most recent attempt, sampled in a big 2012 box dedicated to Ferrier, takes the middle line. You pays your money and takes your choice. None of these iterations have transformed my sense of this as an indifferent recording of out of sorts performers and Beulah’s new version whilst agreeably forthright doesn’t convince me to change that opinion either.
There is of course huge poignancy to the dying Ferrier’s singing but setting such biographical matters aside, musically it is far from her at her finest. The New York performance I mentioned earlier finds her in better voice, more passionately engaged with the words and, most crucially, fully in communion with the conductor.
The kindest thing that can be said about Walter’s handling of the Abschied is that he rambles a little. This huge movement is, of course, full of incidental beauties but it is as if the German conductor gets bogged down in them. Perhaps he got too caught up in the events surrounding the recording. Either way it is missing Walter’s gentle but firm hand on the tiller.
This is far from the best Das Lied from either Walter or Ferrier and it is the third best Das Lied just released by Beulah. Many collectors will be unfamiliar with the van Beinum in which case it is the one to get since it represents the Dutch Mahler tradition splendidly but the Reiner in particular sounds marvellous in Beulah’s new version. Go for either or both of those and while you’re at it treat yourself to the 1948 Walter/Ferrier New York account on Somm.