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Hyperion Records

APR5579 - Brahms: Alto Rhapsody; Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: June 2003
Total duration: 76 minutes 54 seconds

APR Musique-Vérité
Brahms: Alto Rhapsody; Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Adagio  Aber abseits, wer ist's?  [3'55]  recorded 14 October 1949
Poco Andante  Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen  [3'37]  recorded 14 October 1949
Adagio  Ist auf deinem Psalter  [5'38]  recorded 14 October 1949

APR's Musique-Vérité label is devoted to live recordings. The exceptional musical interest and historical significance of these recordings have taken precedence over sonic considerations. This recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is without the opening 7 bars.

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

One of the pre-eminent English conductors, John Barbirolli’s art requires little by way of introduction here. What is especially significant about this performance is that it is a superb demonstration of the near telepathic relationship Barbirolli enjoyed with the orchestra he took over in 1943 and of which he became conductor laureate for life in 1968.

It is difficult to comprehend that Kathleen Ferrier’s professional singing career spanned little more than a decade, with much of that time dogged by the cancer which was to take her life so prematurely. After her first major London appearance in 1943 (Messiah at Westminster Abbey) her career took on an international dimension with astonishing rapidity.

During the last few years of her life Kathleen Ferrier enjoyed a particularly close personal and musical rapport with both John and Evelyn Barbirolli. The poignancy of this broadcast is heightened by the knowledge that it was given on the singer’s fortieth birthday. It was followed by a surprise birthday party given in her honour by the Barbirollis – one of the ‘joyous family reunions’ which took place whenever Ferrier visited Manchester.

Although we now have commercial or off-the-air recordings of Sir John Barbirolli’s interpretations of eight of the nine Mahler symphonies – he never conducted the Eighth – it was feared that Das Lied von der Erde had eluded the net. But miraculously a tape has been discovered of a broadcast on 22 April 1952. True, the first few bars are missing, but that is a very small price to pay, especially as the tenor and contralto soloists are the ‘dream team’ from that era – Richard Lewis and Kathleen Ferrier. They performed it with Barbirolli and the Hallé on several occasions and this BBC performance was recorded while they were in Manchester for a public performance of the work on 24 April in the first season of the newly opened Free Trade Hall. During that season Ferrier also sang with the Hallé in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody and Handel’s Messiah.

Barbirolli did not begin his exploration of the Mahler symphonies until February 1954, with the Ninth, but he had first conducted Das Lied von der Erde at a Hallé concert in the Albert Hall, Manchester, in April 1946, with Parry Jones and Catherine Lawson as soloists. He brought to it the same breadth of vision that he was to bring to the symphonies. No doubt he wished he could have had as many strings as the Vienna Philharmonic, but the 1952 Hallé was a great orchestra and the playing of individuals in the solos – notably Oliver Bannister's flute and Janet Craxton’s oboe – is superb, as is the orchestra’s discipline in ensemble in responding to its conductor’s sometimes audibly groaned demands for expressive vibrato and portamenti, typical Mahlerian features.

Barbirolli had been working with Ferrier since 1946, when she sang Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and she became his first choice for the Angel in performances of The Dream of Gerontius. He intensely admired her artistry and adored her as a woman. His first Mahler with her was the Kindertotenlieder song-cycle in October 1948, followed by Das Lied von der Erde. At the time of the performance on this disc, she had already developed symptoms of the cancer that was soon to kill her. Ten months later her career ended when she collapsed after a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo at Covent Garden (conducted by Barbirolli) and eight months later, in October 1953, she died. Less than a month after the Hallé performance, she went to Vienna where she made the famous recording of Das Lied von der Erde with the tenor Julius Patzak, the Vienna Philharmonic and Bruno Walter, a classic of the gramophone. It is instructive to compare her singing of it here with the later performance. It may be thought that she dared a few more examples of expressiveness with Barbirolli and that in the Abschied she was more comfortable, less tentative, on her top G and other high notes. In both performances she is intensely moving. Who else has coloured the voice so darkly at the words ‘Wohin ich geh’? Ich geh’, ich wandre in die Berge’ (‘Where do I go? I go, I wander into the mountains’).

The survival of this recording is important, too, because it preserves Richard Lewis’s performance in its prime. He had first sung with Barbirolli at a Hallé concert in 1947/8 Manchester season and later sang Gerontius with him with Ferrier as the Angel, as well as recording this role with both Sargent and Barbirolli. In the summer before the Mahler performance he had had a big success at Glyndebourne in the first English professional performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, in which he sang the title-role. The rich almost baritonal quality of his voice can be heard in this performance in the first song, in which (even allowing for the positioning of microphones) he seems to have had little difficulty in rising above the orchestral tumult.

Mahler himself never heard Das Lied von der Erde. He completed it in 1909, having begun it two years earlier when a friend gave him Hans Bethge’s The Chinese Flute, a collection of German translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry. He had recently learned that he had a heart defect and in the poems he found an expression of his own philosophy – that the beauties of Nature renew themselves year after year and although mankind enjoys them for only a brief span, the earth blossoms again. What may have been envisaged as a song-cycle became a song-symphony in six movements. He orchestrated it in 1908–09 and told Bruno Walter it was the most personal work he had composed. One can trace a symphonic structure, with the short third, fourth and fifth movements forming a kind of scherzo. A large orchestra is used, but is often treated like a chamber group.

Another hitherto unpublished Ferrier recording is that of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody. This performance was taped from a Norwegian Radio broadcast on 14 October 1949 when Erik Tuxen conducted the male voices of the Oslo Philharmonic Chorus and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. It could be said that its lower compass suits Ferrier’s voice better than the Mahler and it was a work of which she was particularly fond (she called it ‘Brahms’s Raspberry’). She recorded it commercially in December 1947 with the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Clemens Krauss and said in 1951 that it was ‘perhaps the best record I have made. It was recorded in a large hall [Kingsway] and my voice floated out naturally.’ It is certainly very fine but this Oslo performance has its special merits, too, even though Tuxen takes three minutes less than Krauss, showing a considerable variation of tempo in a short work.

Brahms wrote the Alto Rhapsody in 1869. It is a setting of three stanzas from Goethe’s Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains in which a young and unhappy man seeks solace in the wilderness. A darkly scored recitative introduction in C minor [1] tells of the wandering in the wilderness. The man’s anguish – he speaks of ‘hatred of men’ (‘Menschenhass’) – is projected in the cross-rhythms of the subsequent aria [2]. Finally, the wanderer finds emotional stability in the serene C major melody shared between soloist and men’s chorus [3].

Michael Kennedy © 2003

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