MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde – Kathleen Ferrier, mezzo/ Set Svanholm, tenor/ NY Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio

Andrew Rose revives Kathleen Ferrier’s American debut, in her first Bruno Walter-led “Symphony of Songs” by GUSTAV MAHLER.

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde – Kathleen Ferrier, mezzo-soprano/ Set Svanholm, tenor/ New York Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio PACO 137, 58:20 (mono) [avail in var. formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

In this, Andrew Rose’s restoration of 18 January 1948 performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at Carnegie Hall under Bruno Walter, the great Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) made her American debut. The tenor solo has Set Svanholm (1904-1964), the Swedish operatic talent who had assumed much of the repertory that was dominated by Lauritz Melchior. Recorded history now has four interpretations of this mighty score with Bruno Walter, who gave the world premiere 20 November 1911. The performance here at Carnegie Hall possesses a decisive urgency, occasionally making Svanholm enter ahead of the beat.  What we crave always and forever remain Ferrier’s vocal timbre and lyrical stamina, which appear to gain strength and fervor as this evening’s rendition evolves. The music well-combines the contradictions in Mahler’s character: his cosmopolitanism and complete orchestral mastery and security, even as the otherwise distant, detached nature of the poetry becomes emblazoned in passionate, often hysterical reaction to the transience of life.

Mahler opens with an anguished first movement, a brutal variation-form, drinking song inspired by wine, which has Svanholm intone Li-T’ai-po’s “Dark is life; dark is death” each time at a higher pitch, even as the orchestra breaks into convulsions.  Ferrier appears in her husky, resonant voice in Chang Tsi’s “The Lonely Man is Autumn,” in bleak tones from muted violins and oboe, made more lachrymose by Ferrier’s passionate plea to the sun, “Will you ever shine again?” Three intermezzi follow, all by Li-T’ai-po: “Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” and “The Drunkard in Spring.” Svanholm lacks the absolute freshness Wunderlich brings to “Von der Jugend” under Klemperer, but the affect is still ironically pure. Ferrier casts an erotic spell over “Von der Schoenheit,” which pictures ardent girls in a kind of wistful gallop. Svanholm returns with a drunkard – accompanied by violin – trying to appreciate Spring and its promise of rebirth, but his sense of mortality reverts to the wine flask. Der Abschied proffers a sustained, massive farewell to life, based on the work of two complementary poets, Mong Kao-Jen and Wang Wei.  Violins, oboe, low cellos, clarinet, horns, mandolins and flute dominate the color commentary of this extended paean to life, in which Ferrier carries us through nine major variants of two songs, and she shines in the moment celebrating the rising moon. By the end, only the repeated Ewig (“forever”) has any ‘enduring’ sound in our hearts, a token of the music, the philosophical sentiment, and the quality of Ferrier’s contribution to this melancholy masterpiece.

—Gary Lemco

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