Eduard van Beinum’s commercial recordings of Mahler will repay the advocates of this music many times over.

Van Beinum conducts MAHLER = Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (2 performances); Symphony No. 4 in G Major; Das Lied von der Erde – Eugenia Zareska, contralto/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Margaret Ritchie, soprano/ Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Nan Merriman, contralto/ Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Ernst Haefliger, tenor/ Nan Merriman, contralto/ Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Eduard van Beinum – Pristine Audio PASC 498 (2 CDs) TT: 2:25:56 [] ****:

The 1900 Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler provided my first encounter with the composer, particularly by way of the Columbia recording by Bruno Walter and Desi Halban. The work, as Professor Friedheim had been wont to point out, had been “conceived in reverse,” almost an after-thought to complement the final movement of Symphony No. 3 and its allusion to the Wunderhorn song “Das himmlische Leben.”  With my later audition of the 1939 recording by Willem Mengelberg with Jo Vincent (on Philips), I had an even clearer picture of the performance practice in a Mahler tradition that relied heavily on orchestral slides and luftpausen than Bruno Walter maintained. For the beauty of the vocal part, I had to discover the performance from the Hague with Willem van Otterloo and the “white” soprano, Teresa Stich-Randall. Here, in restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn’s edition of the April/May1952 reading of Eduard van Beinum (1900-1959), we find many of the Mengelberg traits – in portamentos – having been maintained in the course of an energetic performance true to Beinum’s own lights.

The orchestral contribution in the last movement rather overwhelms Margaret Ritchie’s uneasy control of the tessitura, although her diction remains clear and adequate to the wry, even perverse mixture of beauty and heavenly slaughter. The Concertgebouw effects the alternately blissful and martyred energies with lithe grace, confirming my own faith in Beinum as a natural exponent of Mahler – even embracing the morbid elements, as in the Death’s-head allusions in the second movement’s augmented violin part – much as his devotion to Bruckner bore no less fruitful realization. Beinum’s uninterrupted moment of rapture comes in the luxurious Ruhevoll movement of the G Major Symphony, in which the Concertgebouw violas and pizzicato basses achieve a numinous liberation. The purity of the sonic restoration ensures our commitment to this grand expression of Mahler’s Wunderhorn sensibility.

One of the more immediate appeals of this set of Beinum’s complete studio Mahler recordings involves the participation of contralto Nan Merriman (1920-2012), here in the Songs of a Wayfarer cycle, recorded 8-12 December 1956. Unlike the sequence from Eugenia Zareska with Beinum (rec. 1946-1947, Decca’s debut Mahler recording), the Merriman rendition seems less “studied” or “contrived” to elicit pathos. Merriman reminds me of the honest charcoal-effect that Kathleen Ferrier can evoke in Mahler. Zareska’s timbre feels too light to sustain the colors implicit in Mahler’s texts, and in the higher register she sounds strained or pinched. Perhaps what is operative in Zareska is a Nineteenth Century aesthetic, a more melodramatic approach that likes broad gestures. The steel of the knife of the wrenching third song in this progression of unrequited love truly burns in Merriman’s delivery, reminding me of the smoldering allure she projects in her El Amor Brujo for Stokowski. I must admit – and gladly – that in that same third lied, Zareska’s pointed accents against the LPO trumpet hurl at us a sense of personal agony.

The combination of Ernst Haefliger (1919-2007) and Nan Merriman for the 3-6 December recording of Das Lied von der Erde proves serendipitous, given Haefliger’s studies with Julius Patzak, who effectively renders the tenor work for Bruno Walter’s Decca performance. Though Kathleen Ferrier dominates the field at this period of 1950s Mahler vocalism, Merriman conveys the bleakness of spirit in Der Einsame im Herbst with unsentimental pathos, to which the Concertgebouw woodwinds add a poignant luster. Merriman can reduce her vibrato, like Stich-Randall, so as to haunt the text. Merriman’s vocal stamina, no less ardent than that of Ferrier, suffers no sag for the valedictory resignation of Der Abschied. For Von der Jugend, no male singer has surpassed Fritz Wunderlich (with Otto Klemperer conducting), but Haefliger invests a coy relish into his depiction of creative friends who chatter and compose poetry, self-complacent in their security of having manipulated eternity.

For Mahler advocates, this Pristine collection from Eduard van Beinum will repay the investment many times.

—Gary Lemco